With his debut feature, Heathers, director Michael Lehmann created a cult hit that’s still earning new fans more than two decades after its release. Heathers stars Winona Ryder as Veronica, the newest and most reluctant member of her high school’s popular clique, the Heathers (referred to as such because the other three members are all named Heather). After falling in with a rebel boy named (hilariously) JD, (Christian Slater), Veronica decides that maybe it’s time somebody takes the Heathers down a peg, and maybe it should be her and her new beau. Things get out of control and murdery after that. The film sticks with audiences because it’s honest and brutal in its portrayal of the social strata of high school and the level of abuse that rolls downhill from the popular kids to the geeks. And it sure doesn’t turn a blind eye to the melancholy and melodrama that comes along with having teenage hormones. It faces the issue of teenage suicide head on and makes sick jokes about it, and it’s just that brand of nihilism that young people respond to most.
Mark Waters’ Mean Girls isn’t quite yet a decade old, but already it seems to have faded away much more than Lehmann’s look at high school life. This is strange, because not only does it deal with many of the same concerns as Heathers, but it also comes from a script that was written by Tina Fey. From her work as the head writer on SNL, to her creation of the show 30 Rock, everything that Fey has written for television has been widely embraced, but its rare that I talk to anyone who even remembers that she’s the one who wrote Mean Girls. In fact, tell people you like this movie and you’re likely to get laughed at, as if it was something aimed solely at teenage girls. Probably that happens because it’s a Lindsay Lohan-starring vehicle that was sandwiched in between Disney releases like Freaky Friday and Herbie Fully Loaded, and it only slightly preceded her much publicized downward spiral into becoming a tabloid joke.
What do they have in common?
Heathers and Mean Girls are both films that feature the most vile, despicable villains history has ever seen: the popular girl clique in high school. Whether you’re talking about the Heathers from Heathers or the Plastics from Mean Girls, you’re dealing with covens of Barbie Doll clones who operate like a cult of personality and who maintain their power by systematically putting down everyone around them. Both films’ protagonists are girls who have newly joined these cliques, but who aren’t fully on board with their evil agendas of oppression, and who devise plans to end their reigns of terror. Both films pay close attention to how young people talk and then attempt to create their own slang as well. The effort is appreciated, even if “What’s your damage?” caught on much better than “fetch.” Fetch is never going to happen.
Why is Heathers overrated?
You can definitely say that Heathers is twisted. It’s unquestionably cutting and sarcastic, but the idea that it’s a black comedy can be disputed. Comedies are generally funny, and while the film’s casual disregard for young life can occasionally inspire a guilty smirk, it never goes far enough to get a real laugh. Actually, there are chunks of Heathers that can get downright boring. In a film like Mean Girls, you’re observing the popular girl from afar and commenting on their ludicrous behavior. Too much of Heathers drops you right in the middle of them and forces you to listen to them drone on and on about their vapid lives while they play croquet. Or, conversely, you get stuck with Ryder and Slater’s characters as they drone on and on about how despicable the popular girls’ behavior is. It starts to feel like somebody forgot to write in any jokes.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s satire, but it’s more the kind that you just quietly acknowledge on an intellectual level than the kind that illuminates anything for you. Heathers’ murderous exploits shine a light on the cruelties and narcissism of youth, the power that peer pressure has over teens to make them behave irrationally, and their tendency to blow every little thing up into world-ending melodrama. Shining a light on things that exist isn’t quite enough though, you also have to have a unique perspective on what you’ve discovered, and Heathers tends to just put the issues on the table and walk away from them. If there’s any insight here, it’s the fairly shallow observation that people should be nicer to each other—an observation that didn’t necessarily require wallowing in murder and suicide to make.
Which brings us to the most egregious problem with watching this movie with modern eyes: after a couple decades of real-life school shootings and gruesome mass murders, a couple of soulful outcasts murdering the tyrannical popular kids doesn’t seem like nearly as much escapist fun as it once did. Heathers gets so lost in its murder allegories that the third act degenerates completely into action film territory, complete with a ticking bomb that needs to be disarmed. It’s ludicrous. Perhaps twenty-five years ago teenagers engaging in spontaneous, casual murder seemed like an extreme enough conceit to be satirical, but now its just a depressing reality. The effect would be like reading Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” after a decade where cannibalism cases dominated the global news landscape.
Why is Mean Girls underpraised?
As was intimated up top, the best thing about Mean Girls is the script provided by Fey. There aren’t any boring stretches here because she’s packed every moment with gags, including quotable dialogue, physical comedy, and well-researched insights into modern teenage culture. What other high school movie, when running down all of the school’s cliques, knows to separate cool Asians from nerdy Asians, as well as to specify that the band geeks are a uniquely sexually active subset of outcast? The journey Lohan’s character makes is pretty engaging as well. She goes from a state of naiveté, to experiencing a moment of ultimate corruption, to eventually finding a place where she can merge a world-weariness with her true personality, and her growth rings true. Ryder’s character in Heathers, in comparison, merely seems to go from brain dead follower to someone who thinks before she acts. And that’s after killing people.
The acting you get in Mean Girls is leagues better than the acting you get in any other teen comedy. From top to bottom the cast is great, with most of the kids having gone on to bigger things since the film’s release. And even the performers who we haven’t heard much more from clearly deserve to get better work. We’ve seen how big Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, and Lizzie Caplan have become since 2004, but where has Daniel Franzese been since this movie came out? He displayed powerful comedic chops here, and he hasn’t gotten another great role to showcase his talents since. It’s a shame really. Lohan is actually really great as the protagonist too. Sure, she’s gone off the rails in recent years and is mostly just a punchline these days, but here she shows that she can do comedy, emote, and come off as likable and relatable all at the same time. That wasted potential is an even bigger shame. Also: Tim Meadows. Enough said there.
Most relevant to this argument though, Mean Girls is able to squeeze pretty much all of the same social commentary that Heathers contains into its story without getting anywhere near as nasty and uncomfortable. The repeated images of teens degenerating into bloodthirsty members of the animal kingdom covers the cruelty angle, peer pressure works to dramatically corrupt everything about Lohan’s blank slate character, and the character of Gretchen Wieners alone is a worthy enough shrine built in the honor of teenage overreaction. Mean Girls covers all of the same bases that Heathers does, but it does it with a story full of Machiavellian social sabotage that doesn’t have to resort to murder and suicide. That way much ickiness lies.
Evening the odds.
However you feel about which of these movies is more entertaining, it’s pretty hard to argue the fact that Mean Girls better handles the moralizing going on. Putting even the whole murder angle aside, Heathers makes the mistake of glorifying the rebels who are bucking the system, and ends up elevating them into the position of being the new idols. This doesn’t accomplish much other than giving the awkward, nerdy kids who watch it a license to feel smug in their own way. Mean Girls’ ending is much more productive when it comes to making teen viewers better people. Even its protagonist ends up looking like an asshole, and not only does it preach the message that young girls don’t need to tie their self-worths to the way they look, it also portrays them as capable of being good at math. Now that’s progressive. We need way more high schoolers thinking about math and way less worrying about their social standing.