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HEATHERS

from The New Yorker

“Heathers” Blew Up the High-School Comedy

The 1989 cult classic ushered in a darker, weirder, more experimental era for teen movies.

Text by Naomi Fry

“Touchstones” is an ongoing interactive series in which New Yorker writers guide us through the works that shaped them as critics and as people.

In the course of the eighties, nothing formed my understanding of what it meant to be a teen-ager, and particularly an American teen-ager, more than the movies of John Hughes. I was an Israeli kid who occasionally, thanks to my dad’s job, spent time in the United States, and Hughes’s œuvre—especially “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” and “Sixteen Candles”—served, for me, as both an anthropological document and a how-to guide. For American teen-agers, I learned, daily life was a battleground: their parents pushed them around or ignored them; their teachers were bored and boring; they were confused about sex, and even more so about love; race was rarely a problem (the American teen-ager was almost always white), but class, and especially money, was; and class and money translated into the chief issue seemingly dogging every American teen-ager’s life—high-school cliques, and one’s ability to break free of their constraints in order to discover who one really was.

No matter how difficult these issues were to deal with, however, teens were able to overcome them by the end of Hughes’s movies. No problem was unmanageable, no adversity insurmountable. The movies’ redemptive arc guaranteed that the burnout and the prom queen could set their conflicts aside—as could the rich guy and the poor girl, and the jock and the weirdo—and the result was a new, more perfect union, which was more often than not sealed with a kiss.

The Hughesian Ending

“Make a wish,” Jake tells Samantha in the last scene of “Sixteen Candles.” “It already came true,” she replies.

The constancy of this teen-movie template was likely why “Heathers”—directed by Michael Lehmann, written by Daniel Waters, and the feature-film début for both—came as such a shock. Though the movie was released in the States in 1989—where it was, for the most part, a critical hit, though a box-office flop—it had not come out in Israel, and I saw it only in 1990, which I spent in Seattle. That year, I had fashioned myself as a sophisticated outsider, and had begun going to see movies alone, as sophisticated outsiders tend to do. (Making friends was a little bit of a struggle.) And so I settled down alone in a cinematheque-style theatre to watch what I believed would be another Hughes-style comedy. “Heathers,” I imagined, would focus on two attractive young people, played by Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, who would, against the odds, fall in love, come to resist the cliquishness of their school—embodied by a trio of popular mean girls, all named Heather—and bring on an improved, quasi-utopian social order.

But about twenty-five minutes into the movie I experienced a strong cognitive dissonance: I watched as J.D. (Slater) and Veronica (Ryder) gave Heather Chandler, the cruellest, most powerful member of the Heathers, a poisonous concoction. Had they just killed her? A teen movie couldn’t include murders, could it?

[ click to continue reading at The New Yorker ]

Posted on April 1, 2019 by Editor

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