Flicks With Nicki – Heathers (1988)
One of my teenagers recently saw the movie “Heathers” while at a friend’s house. I was excited to hear her thoughts, because I really liked that movie when I was a teen.
“You did?” she asked. Her eyes looked at me like a stranger. “It wasn’t funny.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be funny . . .” Before I could explain the merits of a dark comedy with twisted humor, I asked her to tell me about the movie.
“There’s a new guy at school who meets a girl from the popular crowd. He accidentally kills her best friend, then two football players. Then he tries to kill her and the entire school.” Okay, yeah. So that happens. The movie description is not funny.
When I first saw “Heathers,” I was in junior high. The year before, I’d been dumped by a good friend from elementary school. Yes, her name was Heather. I dare you to pull out my yearbook and try to identify her. There were a lot of Heathers. I was bound to like a movie that showed the dangers of being popular at the expense of being good.
I’m a long way from junior high. I wondered if the movie would hold up to my current sensibilities. I’m older. I’m a mother. My tolerance for violence is different now. I decided to watch “Heathers” today.
We meet four friends Veronica (Winona Ryder), Heather, Heather, and Heather. Heather #1 (Red Heather) is the leader. Heather #2 (yellow Heather) is the cheerleader. Heather #3 (green Heather) reads Moby Dick. Veronica (she’s blue) doesn’t like the bullying and biting tone of Heather #1. Though reluctant, she is a willing participant in the awfulness of the Heathers.
Enter J.D. (Christian Slater) as the rebel boyfriend. He looks at Veronica. At first, we think he is a hero because he really sees her. He is different than the crude jocks and drunk college boys. Almost immediately we get our first twist on the high school movie trope. J.D. seems like the perfect partner for Veronica. She wants to escape the popular crowd to get a kinder gentler high school experience. Soon we find out that he is not the hero. He purposely kills Heather #1, and convinces Veronica to help him disguise it as a suicide.
Eventually, Veronica realizes that murderous J.D. is worse (only slightly) than her self-indulgent friends.
It’s a story about bullies, sexual predators, suicide, and murder. And it is classified as a comedy.
It’s uses high school as a microcosm of the real world. It’s a social commentary. It’s pretty smart.
There are plenty of references to literature and popular culture throughout the movie. Set in Sherwood, Ohio, my 10th grade brain recalls “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson. J.D. is clearly a reference to J.D. Salinger and the rebel Holden Caulfield. Christian Slater mimics Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” Near the climax, you feel the influence of Shakespeare. What teen would get that?
There’s no way my daughter would catch the references to the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” Who would understand the creepiness of “Hands Across America?” Jordan Peele that recently revisited that concept in “US,” so you know it’s creepy.
These girls are beautiful, popular, colorful, and rich. They swear. They curse. A lot. And creatively. The first line of the movie is “Damn.” It is funny. The bright and shiny people are just as capable of evil as the boy in the trench coat with a gun.
I see why it isn’t funny to my child. It isn’t her world.
The film’s director, Michael Lehmann, said the movie was shocking to adults not kids. But I think the opposite is true now. It is shocking to kids today. It feels different. They’d have to be social archaeologists to say that “Heathers” is funny.
And it’s funny. It isn’t a comedy, but it is funny.
Yes, it is a movie with displays of homophobia, fat-shaming, and bullying. But all of these moments are shown with disgust not humor. Martha Dunstock is shown to create empathy not ridicule. The grieving father and crying sister were shown to create empathy. The humor is in the dialogue. The humor is in the brazen language of teens.
As a teen, I was bound to like a movie that showed the dangers of being popularity at the expense of being good. As an adult, I’m bound to like a movie that shows the dangers of being socially isolated. I get why it doesn’t work for everyone today. I grew up watching “The Twilight Zone.” My kids grew up watching “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.”
For the trip down memory lane with some repressed baggage I’d totally forgotten about. For the very cringy 1980’s moments. For the moments that made me laugh. For my eternal love of a big red hair scrunchie. For “What’s your damage, Heather?” Grade B+. How very.