“I can’t believe this is my life…I’m going to have send my SAT scores to San Quentin instead of Stanford!”
Sandwiched in between its predecessor’s grit and flamboyance and the waist deep, affected irony to come, the decade of the 1980s is often stereotyped as a particularly naïve and superficial time. People forget that it had teeth. Consider Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, a sort of poisoned pill response to the earnest ubiquity (and presumed complexity) of John Hughes’ by then shopworn cinematic high school milieu, snuck into the decade just under the wire, like a pipe bomb stashed away in a forgotten basement. The old military aphorism states that “history is written by the victors”, which is an uneasy notion for Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters, who immediately set out to upend and disprove it. The resulting film is a high school coming of age story wrapped in a coal black cautionary tale. There is ample caution with cause to spread around. Westerberg High School, one of those identikit institutes of mid-lower learning the movies invariably ascribe to the Midwest despite being shot in California, operates under an informal caste system that wouldn’t be terribly out of place in medieval Europe. At least that what the “Heathers”, the clique of ultra-popular girls occupying the top rung of Westerberg’s social ladder, envision, though their day to day existence – aimless loitering at lockers, idle bathroom gossip, suffering/navigating a common lunchroom overflowing with the rough and unwashed – is just so tedious, so menial, so inconvenient. In this kind of trying environment, a girl sometimes has to make her own fun, just to stay sane.
We are introduced to the Heathers at immediate arm’s length, as the trio strolls, dreamlike, across a vast croquet pitch we will later learn is one’s backyard, a fanciful and sumptuous updated version of the 1956 Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera” painting the background. These girls are well above the likes of us, this first glance effectively communicates, but we can always aspire. Known widely as “Heather #1” is the slick, contemptuous Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), an icy, blonde debutante with stilettos in her eyes as well as on her heels, the unquestioned queen bee, of this group and the larger academic hive, both of which take the whole of their societal cues from her ever changing whim. Tall, pliable, head cheerleader Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) serves as faithful lieutenant and yes-woman to Heather #1, dutifully advancing her agenda and unsubtly complementing Chandler’s abundant beauty with her own, while never posing the least threat to the status quo. Completing the trio is the equally gorgeous yet comparatively mousy* Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), a quiet, absent-minded eggshell walker, grateful for whatever stray ray of sunshine she might steal from her position nestled within the other girls’ shadows. The Heathers’ lofty perch in Westerberg society is basically unchallenged, a product of equal parts ingrained privilege, blithe overconfidence, and magazine cover allure. When pressed on her classmates’ overall level of disdain for her, Heather #1 is dismissive, reductive, and kinda philosophical in her way: “They all want me for a friend or a f$#%. I’m worshipped at Westerberg, and I’m only a junior.” Initially, it’s pretty hard to argue.
*Duke is even introduced reading a book, which is time-honored high school movie shorthand.
If Heather #1 had only McNamara to subordinate and Duke to chastise, her little group might seem pitiful in ways even she would recognize. Enter Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), a ready-made audience surrogate, as the clique’s default black sheep. Visually, Veronica is a sort of preppy makeover of Ryder’s goth daydreamer character from Beetlejuice, her brunette hair and darker-colored clothing palette marking her as decidedly un-Heatherlike before she’s completed her first line of dialogue. Veronica is selectively passionate, relatable, and empathetic in a way Chandler struggles to both understand and control. She has a sharp introspective streak and, despite her parents’ wealth and her own station within the school, a wholly unbecoming, generally agreeable attitude toward the masses. Early on, Veronica’s eye is caught from across the cafeteria by the mysterious new kid J.D., a trenchcoat-wearing, motorcycle riding, standard issue stoic man of sexy action, played by Christian Slater at the precise moment the Jack Nicholson impersonation that defined his entire career went from being an amusing affectation to an alternate identity. Sparks fly immediately between Veronica and J.D., even as she increasingly produces the wrong kind of friction with Heather #1, in whose callous sense of blanket entitlement she begins sensing real danger. Heathers, then, becomes the story of how Veronica transitions from spectator to activist (of a sort) to class leader, which, I agree, only sounds so interesting, until, of course, you factor in all the murder.
Heathers holds its tongue so firmly in cheek that when bodies suddenly start dropping about a third of the way in, you may well wonder if the whole thing is a dream. Certainly, Veronica and J.D.’s first tentative, practically disbelieving, steps toward a life of shared infamy have a surreal quality to them. Having already established Westerberg, and the unnamed Ohio town that claims it, as something of a different world, it’s not long before the filmmakers start taking sharp left turns, first when J.D. one-ups an intimidation attempt by casually pulling a gun on two jock meatheads, and, later, when he responds to Veronica’s latest Chandler-centric rant by calmly suggesting that Heather #1 doesn’t particularly deserve to live. A shocked Veronica thinks he’s obviously kidding, as any overly smitten high schooler would, but by brunch the following day, Heather Chandler, who in a different movie might’ve been a classic Disney-level villainess, is, indeed, no more, having choked down a homemade hangover remedy comprised of furniture polish on a childish dare. Heather #1 remains consistent to the last – she’ll later turn up at a funeral in one of Veronica’s guilt-ridden dreams, vamped up and bragging about how her memorial service pulled in the far bigger crowd – but her somewhat unwitting killers are shell-shocked, and desperately decide to spin the death as suicide instead of murder, never imagining that the soulfulness they inject into Heather’s improvised parting note will dramatically change their classmates’ opinion of her for the better.
Assuming they’ve done any research, some viewers will arrive to Heathers predisposed to hate it, judge it, or both. Completely green viewers (hard to imagine almost 30 years later, hence the mild spoilers above) are likely to be thrown for a loop, and some will be ejected from the moving train entirely by some of the hairpin corners to come. I understand these potential reactions, even as I counsel open-mindedness. You’ve never quite seen a movie like this. The filmmakers’ approach to patently difficult material is to play it as pitch black comedy, and, indeed, there is much to be mined as Westerberg navigates the seven stages of grief in its own, decidedly haphazard, manner. Teachers and faculty squabble amongst themselves over the proper tactics to reach and/or pacify the student body. When a particularly sensitive teacher suggests a spontaneous outpouring of emotion in pep rally form, the principal rebukes her sharply: “Thank you, Ms. Fleming. You’ll let me know when the shuttle lands.” Peers who were beneath Heather Chandler’s contempt while she lived are suddenly transfixed by her fake suicide note, or proposing special memorial sections (“tasteful, I assure you”) in the yearbook, or pushing each other out of the way to offer one fond on camera remembrance after another, often in the person of Heather Duke, who, liberated from the yoke of Heather #1, begins assuming some of her worst characteristics. Veronica looks on in incredulous disgust, unable to believe what she’s seeing and unable to confide the awful truth in anyone except her homicidal boyfriend, who, for his part, snuggles up to her at the rally and asks, cheekily, “is this good for you too?” Soon enough, she is in full damage control mode and struggling to break free, even as Nietzsche’s own rebel plots his latest in a series of progressively bolder statements.
Heathers was the last cinematic gasp of the Roger Corman-founded New World Pictures, which, legend has it, actually ran out of money to advertise the movie a couple of weeks into its controversial run. This is poetic in a way. Pitch Heathers as a movie today and you would be laughed out of all but the most fiercely independent houses, despite its sneaky and palpable influence on subsequent films like Mean Girls, Jawbreaker, and World’s Greatest Dad. Waters and Lehmann imagine they have a great deal to say about the strictures of high school society, about peer pressure, about individuality, about the need for empathy and inclusiveness. That they are successful to any fitful degree is impressive, and the movie’s first half, as Lehmann builds this offbeat but familiar world (wait until you see what seemingly innocuous grocery item all but brands its owner as gay) and fleshes out the relationship between its protagonist and her, it turns out, psychotic but doting boyfriend, has a real spark of magic to it. These are (almost) fully-realized high school students – restless, scattershot, petty, prideful, emotional – with their own dreams, foibles and prejudices. Not content to strand them in a time-specific vacuum (you’d think a school named Westerberg might boast a soundtrack heavy with music by The Replacements, but we make sufficient do with Sly and the Family Stone instead), Waters even invents a personal vernacular for the Heathers, full of sayings and signifiers** that have shown surprising staying power as subsequent generations of viewers discover the film.
**Among them, snappy retorts (“What’s your damage?”), pleas for sanity (“Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?”), promises of a good time (“It’ll be really ‘very’”) and typically dismissive peer classifications (“Swatch hounds and Diet Coke-heads”). Rarely has a movie been as fun to follow on a purely etymological level, even if only a few of its lines are quite as quotable as “Ghostbusters”.
Despite admittedly morbid subject matter and persistent tonal shifts that would give a marble column whiplash, Heathers zips along for its first hour, making room at the table for big ideas, incisive critiques, dangling threads, looney digressions, and disarming gallows humor – such as when the private, totally inappropriate and self-absorbed thoughts of a procession of mourners, each in the act of “praying” at Heather #1’s casket, are broadcast for the audience to hear. The last third of Heathers finally assumes some of the overtly preachy posture its audacious beginnings so deftly sidestep, as Veronica, J.D. and a pipe bomb struggle in a basement boiler room while a class assembly rumbles in the gymnasium above them, and its ending, while not “feel good” by any stretch of the imagination, is still something of a cop out. But, oh, those beginnings! The movie walks an exceedingly thin line with minimum finesse, rambles occasionally, and appears ready to jump the rails at several junctures. In the end, however, it trusts its heroine to make a stand and do the unequivocally right thing, and also in the surprising ability of teenagers to function autonomously, feel meaningfully, and think for themselves, despite having presented ample evidence to the contrary up to that point.
“Heathers” (1988) 3/4 stars