dir. Michael Lehmann
scr. Daniel Waters
Commissioned by Rod Paddock
“I love my dead gay son!”
I remember laughing so hard at that anguished cry during my first viewing of the jet-black comedy Heathers that someone in front of me turned around to look at me like I had called their mother an asshole.
Then, a moment later, a little girl turned around to glare at Veronica (Winona Ryder) and J.D. (Christian Slater), tears on her face, making both of them feel like assholes for laughing as well. And in that moment, I knew that Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters were absolutely on the right side of the very difficult jokes they make in the film. It’s a film that is gleeful about pushing the envelope to the point where it shreds, and it makes plenty of missteps, but it is also plotted tightly, unfolding with a sort of dreamy inevitability. It is bratty and rude and ham-handed at times, and it is, without a doubt, one of the most scathingly honest reflections of teenage angst ever captured on film.
Right now, I’m watching my first teenager snap slowly into focus, and it’s a nightmare. It feels like someone’s pranking me. This person I’ve known for over a decade, who I’ve watched develop little by little, suddenly took a left turn and now I’m not exactly sure how to talk to him or what’s going on inside of him. When I say “it’s a nightmare,” I am exaggerating, of course, and I am aware that it is a cycle that my own parents went through. They laugh when I talk about what I’m experiencing with Toshi. It’s one of those moments that makes you recontextualize everything. You realize what your parents were thinking and feeling while you were going through things as a teenager, and it’s sort of mind-blowing. What I remember about being Toshi’s age was that everything I was feeling was SO IMPORTANT and everyone was SO STUPID and I was SO MISUNDERSTOOD, and it all felt like the end of the world at every single moment. Part of that was driven by the pop culture I ingested, and I think one of the reasons my parents were able to forgive me my insanity in a way that their own parents were not prepared to forgive them is because they were the first generation of post-war American teenagers. They invented teenage angst. My generation just took their generation’s invention and fine-tuned it, weaponizing it into movies and music that told us that we weren’t crazy, our parents were. And then our generation passed it down to the next, and they’re doing it their own way, making us crazy all over again. Heathers came at a moment when the second-generation teenage programming was just coming to an end. John Hughes had moved on to grown-ups, Patrick Dempsey had stopped chasing older women, and there was already a new Karate Kid.
It does not surprise me that Heathers remains far from a universally beloved classic. Determined to obliterate whatever the outer limits of acceptable darkness was, the film is what happens when the worst instincts of every high school movie get cranked up to high and then allowed to metastasize into something meaner and uglier than even the meanest and ugliest. There were plenty of films that tried to emulate the language of the John Hughes films, but Heathers feels like the first film that truly dared to hold up a funhouse mirror to them and say, “This version of the teenage experience you’re buying into is toxic and phony and it will lead to nothing good.” It was honest because it was surreal, and it was abrasive because it was unafraid. Heathers had nothing to lose, and because of that, it felt like anything could happen from moment to moment. Daniel Waters wrote a script that is determined to shock you, no matter what, and perhaps the best thing about his collaboration with Michael Lehmann is the way their sensibilities seem to push against each other, rather than meshing perfectly. There’s something arch and ridiculous about some of Lehmann’s staging and his choices in production design that is not necessarily a part of what Waters wrote. It’s a big choice, and it’s because of that choice that so much of the movie’s most scathing moments manage to be palatable in any way.
Winona Ryder gives one of the best teen movie performances of the ‘80s in the film, and taken in the context of the work she did on either side of it, it’s ferocious. She stars here as “the good one,” the girl whose wry commentary on the world around her shows that she not only understands what’s going on, but she’s above it all. She may also be one of the great unreliable narrators of all time. She is not a hero by any standards, and the film makes sure to lay out just how many ways Veronica has failed. When the film begins, she’s the runt of the litter in the most powerful clique in Sherwood High School. It feels like a deliberate near invocation of Shermer, Illinois, the fictional setting of the John Hughes films, and this world feels familiar for a few moments. There are the same basic social divisions as we’ve seen in the Hughes movies, and the Heathers sit atop all of it. There’s Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), and the queen bee of the whole thing, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), with Veronica there alongside them, an honorary Heather. As the film opens, she’s already compromised her soul deeply. She knows it, too, but she doesn’t do anything about it. Veronica is smart enough to know what popularity gains her, but she’s also smart enough to know what it costs her, and she’s okay with that. We see that she’s burned down the kid she used to be, leaving behind friends like Betty Finn, and we see that Heather Chandler knows exactly how much she owns Veronica because of the access to adulthood that she represents.
There is some savage honesty to the film’s first act, even before it starts to get into the really dark and crazy material. What this film understands is that the entire clique thing is exhausting if you buy into it, and the only way to win it is to refuse to play at all. When J.D. is introduced, he’s interesting immediately because he’s basically Neo at the end of The Matrix. He’s seen the code, he’s stepped outside of it, and he’s ready to shake it up for everyone else. It’s bizarre watching Christian Slater’s performance these days. If you don’t know how iconic Jack Nicholson was at the moment the film was made, you might wonder what it is that Slater’s doing. It is a dated, odd choice, but removed from context, it feels less like a specific impression and more like a smart kid who is just plain trying too hard. That’s what draws Veronica to him and vice versa. If they could just step outside the nonsense together and make fun of it and ignore it all, they’d be fine.
They can’t, though, and the film goes to great lengths to make sure it gives J.D. enough back story to explain his actions. His dad’s a lunatic who very probably intentionally blew up his mother, and J.D. has been moved so many times that nothing feels real to him anymore. He’s a deeply broken kid, and in a serious film, there’s enough meat on the bones to really explain how he might find violence an acceptable answer to whatever it is that’s eating at him. But this film isn’t serious, and you should know that from the moment where J.D. first pulls a gun at school and gets suspended instead of arrested. The film is not about the way something would play out in reality, but it is emotionally as accurate as anything I’ve ever seen about the way schools respond to crisis.
And I know what I’m talking about here. When I was in high school, I produced a daily show with my buddy Scott Swan, and we did half of the show as live announcements, with the second half for a taped feature. We weren’t the only students who produced material for the show, but we produced the lion’s share. We worked non-stop, and we produced all kinds of material, including a regular movie review show a la Siskel & Ebert. We were bratty kids, and we were just starting to stretch our creative legs, and our teacher gave us a lot of leash. He let us produce some pretty edgy material, and we were lunatics about how we shot things. We had one episode of our review show where Scott and I disagreed about the film we were discussing, and in a very reasonable escalation of our disagreement, I lit him on fire. To accomplish this trick, we utilized such high-tech safety gear as hairspray and towels. We drove our teacher crazy, and we laughed about it as we did it. It was three years of unfettered goofy non-stop creativity, and it led to a twenty year collaboration between me and Scott. But our senior year, there was a dark cloud over the school. There was a suicide, and then there was some copycat violence, and the school got real worried real quick. For the first time, Scott and I found ourselves under a different degree of scrutiny, and that freedom we’d enjoyed ended abruptly. We saw the school’s administration up close as they struggled to figure out what was happening, and they stank of flopsweat. It was scary to realize that these adults had zero answers, and when Heathers came out about a year later, I found myself almost unable to sit still during all the scenes involving the school administration debating how to handle the “suicide” of Heather Chandler. The fear, the finger pointing, the phony textbook language… it was shockingly on-target.
There is nothing funny about suicide, of course. There is a horrible lonely human nature to suicide that makes it one of the most unsettling subjects we can discuss. I’ve had some pretty brutal long dark nights of the soul over the course of the last 48 years, and I can honestly say I’ve considered whether or not it was worth it to continue. I’ve always been able to answer that question for myself, but I know there are people who reach that place where they can’t, and I have deep empathy for what it must take to push them there. Heathers is not about suicide, though. It’s about the panic that sets in around suicide, and the way it becomes a commodity. Watch the way the yearbook kids are practically giddy about the layout they get to do around Heather’s “suicide note.” The film keeps cranking up the joke, with the murder-suicide pact between Kurt and Ram serving to also make some very pointed jokes about how something becomes acceptable in death that would not be acceptable in life. There comes a point about midway through, though, where it’s clear that this is really more along the lines of a Gun Crazy or a Bonnie and Clyde, a dark comedy Badlands in which two doomed lovers careen headlong towards mutual destruction. J.D. wants Veronica to be as broken as he is, and that’s where the film earns the dark comedy, no matter how savage. Heathers is about the importance of maintaining the ability to empathize with someone else’s pain no matter how little you think you have in common. When we do glimpse people who are really hurting, like Martha Dumptruck (Carrie Lynn, whose largely silent performance is one of the most affecting in the film) or Heather McNamara, the film never asks us to laugh at them. It saves its scorn for the way everyone is so busy with their own reactions to the drama that they lose sight of what they’re supposed to be upset about. J.D.’s righteous anger is as fake as Heather Chandler’s suicide note, an act to excuse whatever it is that he wants to do. It’s no different than the power games the Heathers play, no different than the rigidly enforced caste system agreed to by every student at Sherwood. You play the part that gets you closest to what you want. You fake it until you make it. High school is a time when identity is up for grabs, a pressure cooker that can make even the most well-adjusted student feel like blowing up a building from time to time.
Veronica pulls back from her suicide run with J.D. just in time, but I can’t help feeling like the version of the story we watch is the version she’s telling to make sure we still like her at the end of it. The truth is that Veronica lets herself do these terrible things with J.D. because that’s who she really is, and her “victory” at the end is simply her putting her mask back in place so she can move forward. I want to believe in the kindness she shows to Martha as the film’s credits roll, but this film’s heart is so authentically black that I can’t help but wonder what it is Veronica’s going to get out of it.