The 1980’s were a golden age for high school comedies, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Back to the Future to Say Anything… Especially popular were five films written and/or directed by John Hughes (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). These films are warmly remembered, and for good reasons. But part of their original popularity and the continued nostalgia for them stems from sentimentality. To some extent, many of them romanticize high school. A different perspective was needed, and luckily the decade didn’t end before one arrived. Heathers is a pitch-black comedy about the inhumanity of teenagers and the disregard of their elders. It sees the high school clique system as a superstructure so impregnable that the only people asserting their individuality within it are murderers.
The top of the social pyramid in this film is occupied by a triad of valley girls who, as you might have guessed from the movie’s title, share the same first name. This foundational touch sums up the movie’s tone extremely well. First of all, it’s just plain surreal — these girls are practically clones of each other, or rather, they wish they were. It highlights the arbitrariness of the high school pecking order, in which kids are inordinately proud of personal attributes they were born with. (I know, “Jealous much?”) The action of the film kicks off when a new member is welcomed to the group, a girl named Veronica (Winona Ryder). Already, there’s something wrong, like the fourth wheel of the chair being just a little shorter than the rest. This system is ready to collapse.
The real catalyst arrives when Jason Dean, or J.D. (Christian Slater), moves into town. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the school’s cafeteria, a place otherwise divided neatly into cliques. When Veronica and he become romantically involved, the system frays even more. She doesn’t know him very well, and thus a practical joke against the abusive Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), leader of the Heathers, quickly escalates to murder. Here’s where the film’s signature idea comes in. They make her death look like a suicide, and they get away with it.
“Let’s not rehash the coroner’s report. Let’s talk emotions.” To put the rest of the plot as simply as possible: violence begets violence, simple solutions become complicated, and the leadership void left by Heather Chandler is filled by the previously shy and browbeaten Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty). The film’s most vicious satire takes place in the wake of the multiple deaths that occur. As J.D. explains at one point, “Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think to bring upon itself.” It doesn’t take much effort at all to frame a murder as a suicide. Suicide is almost routine. It’s just one of the things those crazy teenagers do sometimes. This isn’t a matter of ogreish adults failing to understand soulful teens, either. Heathers mocks the underdeveloped empathic skills of the students just as ruthlessly as the eye-rolling of the parents and teachers. They are all weighed and found wanting.
The script, by Daniel Waters, is an absolute treasure, filled with the acid one-liners of a great film noir (not to mention the brutal violence and smoking). The story shows teens at their worst, to put it mildly, but this goes deeper than the baroque plot points. In the world of Heathers, teenagers are essentially kids pretending to be adults. Sinister machinations get interrupted by talk of vocab tests, lunch money, and failing in math. The dissonance is amplified by the casting. Many of the main characters seem to have hit puberty early, but although some of the actors are a couple years too old to play high school students, let’s be fair. Richard Dreyfuss and Parker Posey were in their mid-twenties for American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, respectively. And that’s just two examples. Compared to the casting of last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man, this film is a model of verisimilitude. But the important thing is that they look older in Heathers, and they want to act older. Adolescent confusion about what it means to “act your age” is given a scathing treatment here.
Ironically, one other way in which Heathers is different from a typical teen movie is that it shows parents in a more positive light. So often the blockheaded antagonists, comic foils, or just conspicuously absent, in this movie at least they’re part of their kids’ lives and know how to communicate with them. The banter that Veronica has with her parents and J.D. with his dad is truly one of the joys of the film, although in the latter case it gets progressively darker and is actually a pretty brilliant example of exposition done right. When the violence breaks out, the parents are as useless as the genre leads us to expect, but my impression is that they’re simply above it all.
Heathers is a cult film. Not only was it too dark to be very popular, but with its $2 million budget, it lacks the gloss of a studio product. Even so, this movie makes bold use of colors and is filled with details that I love. When the Heathers walk into the school cafeteria at the beginning of the film, it’s like entering an alien world. They spend their afternoons playing croquet, probably the most aristocratic game possible and a perfect way to assert dominance through psychology. Pretty much every scene offers something to make me smile. I love Shannen Doherty’s incredible hair, Veronica’s monocle, and the glass coffee table in Heather Chandler’s room. This is the kind of movie that was made for a small, devoted (and yes, maybe a little hipsterish) audience to gleefully pore over.
If nothing else, this movie was prescient. School violence may have seemed like a sick joke in 1989, but today it’s a tragic reality. Veronica and J.D. aren’t just a Bonnie and Clyde for the “Whatever” generation — J.D.’s motivation and trench coat are eerily familiar. I can understand how survivors of a school shooting might not be able to enjoy Heathers. But I see it as a wake-up call before our society knew it needed one. The target is complacency, and this film hits it with heat and light. Laughter is cathartic, and for better or worse I find Heathers endlessly funny. Yet, for all the darkness this film exposes, the ending still finds a note of sentimentality, however bizarre. It’s oddly fitting, then, that I discovered this movie through the VH1 nostalgia program I Love the ’80s. The past brightens the farther it recedes; I think that’s why we romanticize high school so much. That might be the darkest joke of all.