For better and worse, “Heathers” asks its audience to laugh at the extremities of being human

Michael Lehmann’s exaggerated and stylish glimpse into the late 1980s screens on a 35mm print at UW Cinematheque on April 1.

Michael Lehmann’s exaggerated and stylish glimpse into the late 1980s screens on a 35mm print at UW Cinematheque on April 1.

Header Image: The Heathers (left to right: Shannon Doherty, Lisanne Falk, and Kim Walker) and Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder, second from right) watch as Martha “Dumptruck” (Carrie Lynn Certa) reads their prank love letter off-screen across the cafeteria.

No clearer representation of generational divide occurs than when Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989) becomes a contender for movie night. On one end of the spectrum, contemporaries of teenaged Winona Ryder revel in the remembered nostalgia of perms, shoulder-padded jackets, and scrunchies. On the other end, first-time Generation Z viewers jolt at the uncensored archive of screenwriter Daniel Waters’ slurs, ’80s catchphrases, and bulimia jokes.

To illustrate such generalizations, I offer two anecdotes. My father once suggested watching Heathers because he remembered how much he loved seeing it during its initial release in 1989, when he was a high school student. About ten minutes in, he self-consciously turned it off. Recently, my roommates joined me in a second viewing. Like clockwork, at about ten minutes in, the room became a shocked, rowdy, and dismissive chorus. I picture UW Cinematheque’s Friday, April 1, screening of the film eliciting a similar variety of audience reactions.

Regardless of how a crowd feels about the outdated aspects of the script, the film is undoubtedly a foundational coming-of-age comedy. By deliberately diverging from the cutesy tropes that John Hughes standardized with films like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985), Lehmann and Waters ignited an explosive, extreme subgenre all their own.

Heathers centers on Veronica Sawyer (Ryder), a teenage girl who thoroughly disproves of her clique’s cruel behavior. However, she still desperately tries to fit in by following the Heathers’ (Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, and Shannon Doherty) whims. When she becomes infatuated with Jason Dean (Christan Slater), the mysterious new boy at school, she instead finds herself attached to someone intent on a popular-kid killing spree.

When serial murder is subtracted from the equation, the parallels between Heathers and its successors stand as a testament to the cult classic’s enduring legacy. The ’90s gave its youth Clueless (1995). Millennials pulled Mean Girls (2004) out of the early 2000s. Gen Z’ers claimed Booksmart in 2019. All depict young girls navigating a microcosm of societal hierarchies in ways that poke fun at the inherent ridiculousness of one group of people believing they reign supreme over another. That internal reckoning of reflectiveness is one of the most important qualities of comedic art.

In this vein, however, Heathers is very visibly a prototype. While other films like Lady Bird (2017), Eighth Grade (2018), and the aforementioned Booksmart have built up the genre to offer thoughtful, still-humorous representations of life for numerous sexualities, body types, and races, Heathers presents a social atmosphere extraordinarily oppressive. Though Waters wanted to stray from the stereotypical Hughes movie, he nonetheless still included the genre’s worst tropes, like making light of date rape, unconventional appearances, and more. Martha Dunnstock’s (Carrie Lynn Certa) personhood, for example, continuously receives targeted attention because of her weight and less-feminized appearance. The Heathers and Veronica refer to her as Martha “Dumptruck” and relentlessly bully her for the sake of the punchline. At the very end, Veronica befriends her, but the bitterness of witnessing cruelty for the sake of comedy remains salient even after the credits roll. No one desires Heathers censored or “cancelled,” but an awareness is vital: Being fat, or gay, or gender nonconforming doesn’t have to be the joke it once was.

With that in mind, Heathers can be celebrated for the cinematic time capsule that it is. The film not only records linguistic and cultural trends of the heavily-explored 1980s, but also provides a visual catalog of the iconic aesthetics of the era. When Heather Chandler (Walker) and Veronica begin to collect lunchtime poll answers, Veronica urges Heather to talk to “different kinds of people,” not exclusively the wealthy, popular, and athletic students. What follows is a humorous and outrageously stereotypical dive into the species of ’80s teens. The “country club Chad,” with a cashmere sweater and strictly-groomed hair, boasts about his father’s wealth. The “stoner,” with tangled hair and smoke billowing around her head, becomes confused. The “geek,” braces and giant glasses engulfing a majority of his face, answers excitedly with an objectifying glance at the two girls suddenly giving him the attention he craves. It feels ridiculous, as it’s supposed to. Their faces are framed in close-up shots with a slightly curved lens, closing the distance between the viewer and the actor, in order to hit home the simple silliness of adolescence.

When one takes that silliness too seriously, Jason Dean grounds the film with an uncomfortable plummet back to earth. Slater’s brooding, off-putting character laments the horrible, unbearable realities of society. He takes teen angst to a startling level by quite literally murdering people and then plotting to blow up the entire school, but all for the sake of exhibiting the pitfalls of the opposite end of the hierarchy. As a Generation Z viewer, Slater so convincingly plays the caricature of the angry outcast that not drawing connections to current issues of violence in schools felt almost impossible, and it left behind a somewhat unsettling impression. Certainly, Slater successfully adds to the narrative as a whole, but the inability for his scenes to be comically shot today further demonstrates Heathers‘ distance from the modern cultural moment.

Ultimately, though life itself probably aligns more accurately with the less exciting comings-and-goings of the extras in the background, Heathers asks its audience to laugh at the extremities of being human. It has pitfalls that need to be addressed, but it can still be appreciated as an exaggerated and stylish glimpse into a romanticized period of time. Maybe it wouldn’t be all that bad to pull lingo like “Gag me with a spoon” out of obscurity and back into use, but we should probably leave the rest behind.

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