Back to School Month: "Heathers" Reviews

Photo Credit: New World Pictures

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Back to School Month: "Heathers" Reviews

Rating: R (violence, sexual content, pervasive language, teen alcohol and drug use)
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: Mar. 31, 1989
Directed by: Michael Lehmann
Genre: Comedy 

Movies about high school generally follow a storyline that focuses on the young characters making questionable decisions, and then finding the error in their ways and living happily ever after. The 1989 cult classic "Heathers" follows a much darker path on the way to the lead character's redemption. This film does an excellent job of portraying the stresses and strains young people feel as they navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of high school, and its brutal honesty still feels sincere today. 

Westerburg High School is just like any other high school in America with an affluent student base. There are jocks, nerds, and popular kids, and they all fit into their predefined social order. Heather Duke, Heather McNamara, Heather Chandler, and Winona Ryder's Veronica Sawyer are the most popular girls in school, and they play the titular "Heathers." Every decision about what's cool and hip has to be approved by this powerful group, and they can make or break reputations at the drop of a hat.

Veronica, who has a genius-level IQ, doesn't always see eye to eye with Chandler, the leader of the Heathers, and they have a falling out after Veronica commits a number of social faux pas at a college party.  Around the same time as her relationship with Chandler begins to deteriorate, Veronica meets newcomer J.D., exceptionally well played by Christian Slater, and the two begin a sexual relationship following a game of strip croquet. J.D. convinces Veronica there is a different way to play politics in high school, and the two conspire to murder Chandler and make it look like a suicide.

They get away with their crime, but instead of Westerburg High becoming free from tyranny, Heather Duke simply steps in to take over as the malevolent leader of the school. J.D.'s homicidal intentions become more evident as he tricks Veronica into helping him murder the school's two most famous athletes. Their murders were also covered up to look like the young men took their own lives, and this starts an epidemic of other students considering suicide as a viable coping strategy.  After Veronica refuses to take part in the murder of Duke, J.D. hatches a brazen plan to blow up the entire school and stage it to look like a mass suicide. Veronica manages to thwart his plans at the last minute, and the movie ends with her taking over control of the school with the obvious intentions of being kinder and gentler than the previous regime. 

There are many things about "Heathers" that were rarely seen in teen movies of the late '80s, and that was part of the appeal. It depicted sexual situations, drug and alcohol use, and adult language among teens. It dealt with homosexuality, infidelity, and bullying in a way that teens hadn't seen before. Instead of portraying young people as emotionally immature, "Heathers" showed that they deal with a number of conflicting sensations regardless of age. Some tragic events at American schools over the past years roughly mimic some of those shown in the film, and today the movie can be viewed as a cautionary tale about the pressures students have to deal with.

Young adults are often forced to hide their feelings to gain acceptance, and the bottling of pain and suffering sometimes has grievous results. One of the best things about the film is its timeless representation of teenagers as real people whose flaws, instead of being negative, are simply part of what makes each of them special and unique. 

"Heathers" was originally delivered as a satire on community itself, and the need that people feel—and the lengths that they'll go—to be accepted. As people get older, they realize there is always a need to fit in with our peers, and that is the driving force behind becoming educated, choosing the right career, and driving the perfect car. Veronica attempts to change this sentiment among her core group of friends while J.D. uses people's insecurities to make statements about society in general. Though violent and sometimes disturbing, this film presents the struggle between the characters in a grimly hilarious way.

Through its use of dark comedy, this movie shows that the most important thing an individual can do is think for oneself.  As shocking as it was in 1989, "Heathers" quickly achieved cult status, and many VHS copies of the movie were worn out from repeated viewings. Immensely quotable, it heralded the beginning of "Generation X" filmmaking and propelled the careers of Ryder, Slater, and Shannen Doherty. Its honest portrayal of teen angst and societal insecurities rang true with audiences then, and its ageless message of staying true to oneself still carries weight with today's viewers. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5