Heathers (1989)

Michael Lehmann

STARRINGWinona Ryder - Veronica Sawyer
Christian Slater - Jason 'J.D.' Dean
Shannen Doherty - Heather Duke
Lisanne Falk - Heather McNamara
Kim Walker - Heather Chandler
Lance Fenton - Kurt Kelly
Patrick Labyorteaux - Ram Sweeney
Jeremy Applegate - Peter Dawson
Carrie Lynn - Martha 'Dumptruck' Dunnstock

Year - 1989

Score - 4 Howls Outta 4

High school is a different experience for everyone. Once we enter that school building for the first time in our freshman year, we're automatically labeled for the next four years. Some of us become jocks. Others become nerds and geeks. There are those who become cheerleaders. And there are those who all of these or none of these, becoming social outcasts among their peers. And while labels are just society's way of differentiating people to put them in some kind of status order, this action hurts more people than it helps. Especially if you're on the bottom of this status order. Some deal with it by tolerating their place. And others take action by changing it in violent and non-violent ways. High school is or was a nightmare for most people, as these years have or will make us into the adults that we are or will become.

In the 1980s, there were a lot of teen comedies that dealt with high schoolers. John Hughes was probably the biggest force behind this trend, displaying the issues of teenage life on screen through the likes of Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy, and Anthony Michael Hall. But in those films, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel - a happy ending for everyone involved. But is that really true? Does every high school get what they want at the end? If we look at our current state of high school tragedies, I'd say no. One film at the end of the 1980s showed us the dark side of high school - a place that was pretty on the outside but really ugly on the inside - a place where anyone who wasn't a jock, or a cheerleader, or even in a popular clique was a victim of cruelty and humiliation - a place where if buttons were pushed, bombs would set off in ways that many would not recover from. That film is the cult black comedy and one of my favorites, HEATHERS.

PLOTThere's a hierarchy of popularity in Westerberg High School. The most popular clique is a trio of girls named Heather (Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker) who are not only beautiful and rich, but are arrogant, snotty, and just downright mean to anyone who isn't them. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has become part of the group, but she's not as vicious or devious as her counterparts. While she craves to be popular, she can't stand to be around the Heathers and wants their popularity eliminated. This comes into fruition when she meets bad boy Jason 'J.D.' Dean (Christian Slater), who she falls in love with even with his love for bringing guns to school and playing with poisonous chemicals. When J.D. learns about Veronica's dislike for the Heathers, J.D. creates a plan to get rid of all of them by creating fatal scenarios for each of them, using suicide as their motive. Things start off well, but start spinning out of control when Veronica and J.D. turn on each other over different of opinion over their actions. When Veronica learns that J.D. plans on murdering everyone at the school using explosives, Veronica has no choice but to stop him.

HEATHERS is not a comedy for everyone. It's really smart, but it's extremely dark and makes light of really serious issues like suicide, homosexuality, and obesity. If you're a huge fan of John Hughes, this film may not be to your liking because it's the total opposite. With Hughes, everyone who was against each other earlier in the film would eventually get along towards the end. In HEATHERS, except for one scene, we don't get that happy ending. Everyone still dislikes each other and the hierarchy of popularity still exists. This is a teen comedy that shows a real glimpse of what high school was like in 1989, and I believe it still applies now. With events like Columbine and even Virginia Tech [which really isn't a high school but still fits within the hierarchy angle], HEATHERS proves that it was ahead of its time. The film not only shows how superficial and silly being popular in high school is, but even when people try to change the hierarchy, it never goes away because the survivors will just fill in the pieces to complete the order again. There will always be a privileged top and a subjugated bottom. There will always be a set of Heathers, male or female, in every high school for generations to come and trying to change that is pretty much pointless. It's just life, simple as that.

First-time director Michael Lehmann [who also directed HUDSON HAWK, AIRHEADS, and 40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS] does an admirable job visually exposing the struggles many high schoolers go through without making it so mainstream that it feels fake. There's no happy ending. People die horribly. The truth is never revealed. He doesn't direct a commercial film to make people feel happy, like MEAN GIRLS would do many years after the release of this film. This isn't just a story that's put on film. Lehmann creates a dark world for these characters where the adults don't understand and the teenagers discuss openly bulimia, homophobia, murder, and drugs. Everything is so vividly detailed about these characters that we know a lot about them without really knowing them at all. It's a very thought provoking film that continues to make people think because most of us have been there and understand. Just a great directorial job and great visual storytelling by Lehmann and his team.

The direction wouldn't have been good without the script by another first-timer Daniel Waters [his brother Mark would actually direct MEAN GIRLS 15 years later]. Each of the characters have such a distinct personality that they sound like real people. The teenagers sound like teenagers. The adults sound like adults. There's no in-between. Plus, who can forget the lines these characters have the audacity to say. Who can forget Heather Chandler's "f**k me gently with a chainsaw" line? Or her "bulimia is so '87" line? Or Ram's father loving his "gay, dead son"? While these things sound really dated today, it humorously shows life back in 1989. And the way the murders occur that end up breaking up Veronica and J.D. are so strangely written that it's almost believable in a way. Waters really went inside the world of high school and pulled out the darkest, most malicious stuff that many films in Hollywood at the time wouldn't have had the balls to touch. Not even MEAN GIRLS is as mean as this film. This film really pushes the button on what it's like to be an outcast and I think for those of us who have been there, it really hits close to home.

The acting is really top-notch in this film. I honestly don't believe Winona Rider has acted as well in her later roles as she does in this film. She is Veronica Sawyer - sarcastic, brutally honest, and oddly intriguing as a very conflicted teenager. Her transformation from popular girl, to accidental murderer, to reluctant hero is done flawlessly. She acts and speaks like a normal teenage girl, which is refreshing. I think a lot of females will be able to relate to Veronica thanks to Rider's wonderful performance.

Christian Slater is also great in this film. Using his earlier Jack Nicholson-esque acting, it enhances his bad boy character, J.D. His devilish looks and his oddball body language, Slater gives J.D. just the right edge the character needs to give the audience a sense at how unstable and menacing he is. Plus his misguided humor is really well-timed. Rider and Slater have really awesome chemistry together and make a very entertaining pair. Just great casting for the two leads.
The rest of the characters are equally as good. Kim Walker is great at playing the bitch, Heather Chandler. In her short time in the film, I wanted Rider to beat the crap out of her. I knew girls like her too. I hope they're busy pulling their hair out raising seven kids while barefoot and pregnant with their eighth! That's how good this actress was in her role. And Shannen Doherty was more subtle as Heather Duke. She hit just the right notes and wonderfully transformed from the insecure Heather to confident Heather once Heather Chandler bit the dust and leadership of the Heathers was open for the taking. This was the role that won Doherty the Brenda Walsh role on BEVERLY HILLS 90210, where she played another mean girl. I guess this just proves that Doherty really is a Heather in real life as well.

And some really ironic trivia here: Kim Walker, who in the film asks Winona Rider, "Did you have a brain tumor for breakfast?", really died of a brain tumor in 2001. And Jeremy Applegate, who played newspaper and yearbook editor Peter Dawson, has also passed. While he prayed that he would never commit suicide in the film, Applegate really did commit suicide with a shotgun in 2000. I guess art imitates life, huh?

HEATHERS is one of the best teen comedies ever made. Interesting story involving great characters, what more do you want from an 80s comedy about the dark side of High School? While costing only $2 million and only making half of that at the box office when it was released, this cult film deserved to make more. This film should be appreciated for its guts and realism because in our complicated and sensitive world, this film probably wouldn't see the light of day because of the controversy that will most likely be surrounding the subject matter. But in reality, this film shows that underneath the darkness, the Heathers of this world don't really matter in the scheme of things that we call life. So for all you outcasts out there, watch this film and realize that you weren't alone in how you felt. And for you popular people out there, yeah...this is how we saw you. No offense.

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