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Heathers
★★★★☆
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Heathers is a high school comedy unlike any that came before it, which went on to inspire countless imitators. Winona Ryder (Lucas, Square Dance, Beetlejuice) stars as Veronica Sawyer, a popular high school girl who becomes disillusioned with the clique she belongs to. When her former friends, all named Heather, try to destroy her reputation, Veronica teams up with the mysterious J.D. (Christian Slater), a new kid at her school, to take revenge on the established hierarchy of their suburban culture with unexpected and deadly results. 

This black comedy is a spot-on social satire that wraps up the '80s in a plethora of compelling ways. The clever exploration of how people follow poisonous trends out of fear, ignorance, or the simple desire to conform makes for a nice summation of the Regan years. The high school setting, which by this point had become a cliche from too many films and TV movies, is used here as a metaphor for all of society. The hilarious depiction of how a clueless media and earnest adults end up glorifying the destructive teenage behaviours they're trying to control is frighteningly astute. Thirty years later—in the era of school shootings, Kardashians, and social media that can somehow convince kids that eating Tide Laundry Detergent Pods is cool—Heathers has undergone a Network-like transformation where it no longer seems like an extreme satire but a detailed and accurate harbinger of exactly what was to come.

The script is so sharp it survived all the toning down required to make a releasable picture. The young team that brought it to life did so with such skill that for every compromise that defanged the final film, they made one that improved it. Screenwriter Daniel Waters based much of his script on the fictitious stories he wrote about his real-life classmates in a regular column for his high school newspaper called "Troubled Waters.” His original story was far more elaborate than the final movie. He envisioned a near three-hour epic to be directed by Stanley Kubrick as "the ultimate high school movie." But producer Denise Di Novi, a production executive at Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, saw its potential as a low-budget feature that, if cast well, could become a break out hit. She was correct. Heathers was exactly the kind of property that could launch a dozen careers, and it did. Di Novi approached Michael Lehmann, a former film student known for making shorts with edgy (if sophomoric) content, about making Heathers his first feature. The twenty-six-year-old director jumped at the chance to take on the material.

The blending of sensibilities between this trio of first-timers yields an imperfect but impressive result. Waters, Di Novi, and Lehmann made many narrative compromises to accommodate a New World budget: some of the larger set pieces were dropped, the bleak ending was made happier, and all references to JD Salinger's seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye were replaced with Melville's Moby Dick (that change hurts the picture the most, but while Kubrick might have obtained clearance from the reclusive Salinger this three million dollar production wasn't even going to try). Despite the trade-offs, Heathers still cuts like a knife and possesses the rich, polished look of a studio picture. The design, cinematography, music, and supporting cast are solid and memorable. Though the stylized movie plays as exaggerated reality, Heathers rings true because the filmmakers cast actual teenagers in all the leads and their razor-sharp dialogue is eminently quotable without feeling unnatural or overwritten. While the tone shifts dramatically between the first and second half, the way the characters are written, and Ryder's committed performance, ground the film in a unified reality.  

Ryder, then primarily known to audiences as the lovable goth teenage misfit in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, may have seemed an odd choice for the lead role of a popular high school girl. But her idiosyncratic look fits perfectly within the heightened style of Heathers. Slater, then known for small parts in The Legend of Billie Jean, The Name of the Rose, and Tucker: The Man and His Dream plays his James-Dean-inspired role like a teenage Jack Nicholson. His performance is practically a Nicholson impersonation, but it plays as authentic because kids like J.D. adopt all sorts of affectations, and talkin’ like Jack seems as natural a choice as wearing a leather jacket, smoking cigarettes, moussing up his hair, or any of the other things J.D. does to seem cool. 

Heathers stands apart from the other great ‘80s high school movies because it’s a commentary on teenage life rather than a sincere depiction of teenage years or a broad comedy that uses a coming-of-age narrative as a backdrop for jokes and set-pieces. It's a closer cinematic cousin to Alex Cox's Repo Man than to any of the John Hughes pictures. 

Twitter Capsule:
Ryder and Slater give starmaking turns in this darkly comedic social satire about the dangers of conformity and the glorification of poisonous behaviour. Waters, Di Novi, and Lehmann reinvent the high school comedy genre with style, scathing wit, and eerily prescient observation.
Directed by Michael Lehmann
Produced by Denise Di Novi

Written by Daniel Waters

With: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty, Lisanne Falk, Kim Walker, Penelope Milford, Glenn Shadix, Patrick Labyorteaux, Jeremy Applegate, Renée Estevez, Carrie Lynn, Jennifer Rhodes, and William Cort

Cinematography: Francis Kenny
Editing: Norman Hollyn
Music: David Newman

Runtime: 103 min
Release Date: 31 March 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color