The second to last thing I expected when I turned on Heathers was a hilariously dark comedy about accidental murder and bureaucratic high school dynamics. The absolute last thing I expected was one of the most hard-hitting and relevant commentaries on teenage suicide made in at least the last three decades.
Veronica (Winona Ryder) is attempting to join a trio of popular, but cruel, young women called the Heathers. After being pushed to her limits in terms of tolerable cruelty and self-depreciation for the sake of popularity, she finds comfort in the arms of JD (Christian Slater). He’s an anarchic bad boy who proposes an unusual solution to the Heathers’ cruelty: kill the leader and make it seem like a suicide. As the bodies begin piling up and the suicide framing becomes more elaborate, the students begin to think of their recently deceased peers in a different way while other students begin to think this would be an easy way to be liked…
I’m shocked that a film about a subject matter this heavy would be made in the 1980s, a time when most teen comedies centered around snarky, arrogant pricks who always got the best of their unrealistically dumb teachers and classmates. I’m also surprised that it was able to comment on the issue with taste and respect while also having fun. While the elaborate murder plots and even the funerals of the victims are played for effective laughs, the film never feels mean-spirited or insensitive to the subject of suicide.
Instead, it holds a mirror up to society, mocking 1980s youth culture for its own insensitivity and selfishness in regards to the topic. At one point a character who has been bullied and isolated throughout the film attempts suicide in a desperate attempt to garner attention and sympathy she desires. However, when the other students find out instead of gathering together under a banner of mourning and melancholy remembrance like they did when all the popular kids died, they ridicule her, accusing her of trying to cash in on something popular, which is another aspect of our society Heathers pinpoints well.
Suicide is a tragic and affecting event and it can make you seriously re-evaluate the person even if you were mere acquaintances. The first person to die is one of the Heathers, an obnoxious, merciless, vain ice-queen who most of the school hates. However, when she dies and the fabricated suicide note is discovered she’s suddenly getting her own page in the yearbook and everybody starts looking back on her as a damaged victim to her own image. It’s an almost uncomfortably accurate dissection of real-life situations like these.
Usually, when a comedy tries to make a satirical point they’ll place a normal, everyday person into a chaotic parody of our own world. South Park does this with almost every episode. However, that technique doesn’t often connect with me because I can’t relate to being a world like the one presented. Sure, it’s an exaggerated version of our reality and that’s where the comedy is supposed to come in, but I can’t relate to it because it’s so over-the-top. Heathers uses this technique with its main character Veronica, but it works here because the filmmakers barely needed to stretch reality to make the situation seem ridiculous. You can relate to these situations because you can either imagine them or have experienced them happening in reality.
The acting is great from the cast; Winona Ryder does well playing the every-girl reacting off of the insanity of the world around her. Several of the actors with only tertiary appearances turn in some hilarious performances. However, the real standout for me is Christian Slater; it’s so odd to me to see an actor whose work I’ve never enjoyed, being legitimately compelling and charismatic. I can’t help but wonder if he’s got another good performance in him (no Mr. Robot fans, I haven’t watched the show yet).
The set design and lighting work well together, making everything look bright and colorful like your average 80s comedy. However, in this case, I think that might have been part of the joke: pairing together the standard look of a high school comedy with such dark humor and theme, making the point that in the doldrums and joy of the average American high school usually portrayed in films like this depression and moral degeneracy still flourish under the skin.
If I had one complaint it would be the depiction of the high school social climate. Perhaps this is a generational issue and high schools really were this segregated by cliques and popularity points, but I don’t remember this kind of social bureaucracy when I was in high school. People as stupid and bitchy as the popular kids in this film wouldn’t be top of the food chain; they’d be ridiculed and ostracized for being assholes.
Heathers Final Thoughts:
Heathers operates on a level of self-awareness and boldness that I didn’t think was possible for an 80s comedy. Rather than feeling like a product of its time, it feels more like a film made now looking back on how things were and bringing it home to relevancy in the modern era. This is the exact slap in the face 13 Reasons Why needed. It’s light-hearted where the other was mean-spirited. Humorous where the other was dreary and, most importantly, specific in its cultural commentary where the other was vague and unsure of what the message was supposed to be in the first place. I understand why this is a cult classic, but I hope more people see this. It has never been more relevant than it is now.
This is only the first installment of Cult Month; all throughout July, I’ll be reviewing films with a small, dedicated cult following whether because they were too weird for the general public or because just not enough people have seen them.
Next week: Jake Gyllenhaal is haunted by a demonic bunny.