If you had told me, at 14, that I could only watch one movie for the rest of my life, and I had to choose now, I would have said, without hesitation: “Heathers.”
I never saw “Heathers” in a proper movie theater, which isn’t a surprise considering the movie was an early instance in which the ever-growing accessibility of home video turned a box office failure into a respectable home-sales success. Of my early VHS collection, “Heathers” was without exception the most watched tape. Well into my 20s, I prided myself on my ability to LITERALLY RECITE the whole movie, scene for scene, line for line. Which is a weird thing to pride oneself on, but here we are.
As an adult, I’ve often wondered why “Heathers” resonated so hard with me, why I considered what is ultimately a dark fantasy of high school cliquedom to be the most important film of my youth. It’s a complicated and occasionally difficult film, albeit one that couches its discomfort in some brilliant dark comedy, which probably helped me to relate. And from the opening notes of the croquet-playing credits sequence, I still find it enormously reassuring.
I mean, there are other movies I could cite that would make me sound less... sociopathic. But the truth was, like many teens I was both mesmerized and repulsed by the popular girls in school; as a kid who always felt like an outsider, I wanted to BE them, but I also wanted them to suffer. Or even, maybe, to stop existing. Because although many of us remember it with a certain fondness as adults, high school is actually really freaking difficult.
Three Heathers and a Veronica.
In protagonist Veronica Sawyer, girls like me had a fantasy analogue who somehow overcame a nerdy past with uncool friends to rise to the top of the high school social ladder, but who was still not entirely cut from the same cloth as the popular girls. I mean, in retrospect, it’s sort of bewildering why Heather Chandler would bother taking Veronica away from playing Barbies with Betty Finn, aside from the fact that she happened to look like Winona Ryder. But without that we wouldn’t have much of a story, now would we.
“Save the speeches for Malcolm X. I just want to get laid.”
Early on in the film, Heather Chandler, the most popular girl at Westerburg High, gives a college guy some reluctant oral, which we don’t actually see aside from her bending down out of the frame as the camera moves up to focus on a poster of a well-known (at the time) old Maxell tape ad
What we DO see is the aftermath, Heather standing alone in the messy bathroom of what is probably a frat house, rinsing her mouth out. Instead of spitting into the sink, she spits the (ostensibly semen-tainted) water at the mirror -- at herself -- with a force that could suggest anger, revulsion, hatred, or all of the above.
As a teenager myself I just thought Heather was a callous bitch, and she is -- her role is to be the villain, although her subsequent death will turn her into a far more sympathetic character, at least in everyone’s memories. As a result, I never really understood this scene. There’s something incredibly sad about it, about this weird little private glimpse into her inner world. Heather's disgust is directed at herself, which is all the more upsetting given that she’s just been party to a borderline-coerced blowjob, something she’s clearly done to be sure the college guy in question will still like her.
Heather’s anger is ultimately projected onto Veronica, who refutes the lumbering advances of her own dullard of a date and therefore draws Heather’s ire when he complains about it. This is the first sign that being popular is not just about being bitchy and terrifying. These girls are there at this college party for the enviable purpose of being sexed by guys who are slightly older than the guys they go to high school with. It’s about social standing. The guys know it. Even Heather knows it. Veronica is just being inexplicably stubborn -- the outspoken and self-defining girl so many of us wanted to be -- and Heather doesn’t understand why.
“Our love is god. Let’s go get a slushie.”
Later that same night, Veronica and JD -- this would be Christian Slater as the film’s nihilistic rebel caricature -- have offscreen sex after JD climbs up to her bedroom window, where Veronica is writing a furious diary entry in which she wishes Heather was dead. As a teenager I thought this was like, SUPER romantic, but as an adult it’s pretty creepy to think of some rando dude you barely know finding out where you live and climbing uninvited into your bedroom, even if he DOES preface it by saying, “Dreadful etiquette, I apologize.”
JD is the mysterious new kid in town, and with his black trench coat, shiny motorcycle, and propensity for bringing guns to school, he provides a custom-fit counterpoint for Veronica’s fluff-filled popular-girl life. He also straight-up stalks her, which becomes apparent when he keeps turning up whereever she is. I also thought this was sweet and protective, probably in the same way kids who grew up reading the “Twilight” books thought it was sweet and protective of Edward to hang out and literally watch Bella sleep, when in real life THAT IS SUPER CREEPY, YO.
JD’s character is a parody of the dark and scary rebel boys that good girls are supposed to go mad for, but unlike the traditional story in which the bad boy is really just misunderstood, in “Heathers” he turns out to be literally dangerous when he and Veronica “accidentally” murder Heather Chandler by tricking her into drinking drain cleaner. JD impulsively suggests that Veronica forge a note to make it look like a suicide, and as he dictates Heather’s new compelling final words (an improvement on her actual ones, which were “Corn Nuts!”) Veronica asks him, with a nervous chuckle, “This is good, have you done this before?”
She’s joking, but JD gives a flickering glimpse at the camera itself -- at the audience -- that was always just enough to make me wonder if indeed he had.
Did you say cherry or Coke slushie?
“I love my dead gay son.”
At this point this seems to be a movie about social revenge. The theme continues when two of the school’s football players -- and this being Ohio, satire demands they be as stupid as possible, but also heralded as gods -- spread rumors about Veronica giving them both blowjobs after a rousing evening of drunken cow-tipping.
JD hatches a plan to frame the two knuckle-dragging creeps as the worst thing they could possibly imagine: gay. He tells Veronica that they are going to shoot them with German “Ich Lüge” bullets that will knock them out but not kill them, and arrange everything to make it look like the duo shot each other in a failed gay suicide pact. (“Ich Lüge,” in case you ever wondered, means “I lie” in German.)
Veronica tricks the boys into meeting her in the woods behind the school with promises of sex. JD shoots one of the boys in the neck, and when the other escapes, Veronica laughs, thinking it’s all a joke. JD is serious, though, and chases the terrified kid back to where Veronica is kneeling, with his pale and nonresponsive friend -- and you know, it’s hard not to feel something for this guy, asshole that he is, when you see the terror on his face. At JD's prompting, Veronica shoots him in the chest.
The bodies are shortly discovered by two stoned cops, and against all odds, it’s funny. One of the cops pulls out a bottle of mineral water from the bag of “gay” paraphernalia, and the other immediately says, “Aw man, they were fags!” It’s funny, but it’s also sickening. It’s funny because you kind of need to laugh about how horrible it is.
By the time we get to the funeral, it’s not as funny. When one of the boys’ fathers weepily (and famously) testifies before the whole church that he doesn’t care that his son was “a homosexual,” but that he loves him anyway, it’s complicated. Because everything here is a parody of small-town American life, and the stature of boys like these dead kids within that culture, from the football helmets on their corpses, to their matching side-by-side caskets at their dual funeral, to the public grief of the community.
But it’s also a tragedy. It’s satirizing the pain of a parent who has lost a kid. WHAT KIND OF MOVIE MOCKS A GRIEVING PARENT? And also makes it funny in that way where you’re laughing but you’re also feeling a bad for laughing? “Heathers” turns the audience into Veronica, who, during the service, snickers at JD’s observation that said dad might not be so kind to a gay son who was actually alive, but who then feels terrible about it when one of the dead boys’ young sisters turns and stares at her, tear-stained and bereft. Even assholes have people who care about them.
JD, however, has no regrets, and offers assurances that “Football season is over, Veronica. Kurt and Ram had nothing to offer the school except date rapes and AIDS jokes.” Because they weren’t people, to him. They were disposable.
“The extreme always seems to make an impression.”
Through the rest of the film, Westerburg High School’s alleged epidemic of suicide becomes a popular fixation, eerily predicting a world in which tragedies at schools would become a form of national entertainment, albeit not one we generally look forward to. At the time the film was made, it was far easier to believe that suicide was a legitimate threat to young lives, rather than serial or mass murder, although in the intervening 25 years our culture has come to regard such a notion, if not with numbness, then with a head-shaking resignation.
Even some of the film’s adults dig in on the suicide fad, eagerly anticipating the next death, and suddenly “Heathers” becomes a commentary on the way we are perversely entertained by tragedy, especially tragedy that strikes the young. There is a sick satisfaction to all the public grieving that happens in the film, whether it’s teacher Pauline Fleming solemnly counseling students that “Whether or not to kill yourself is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make,” or Heather Duke expressing her conviction that Heather Chandler’s suicide meant she was too weak to lead the school as a popular girl should.
Veronica has second thoughts at a funeral.
There is a subtext to all of this, too, which is that there is no love in this story -- by the time JD attempts to explain his horrifyingly unbalanced behavior by asserting, “Nobody loves me!” it’s laughable, because nobody loves anybody, and only some people love themselves. Every relationship in the film is empty, from the joyless and worklike friendships between the popular kids, to the bored and self-obsessed teachers at school, to the conversations with clueless (or damn near sociopathic, in JD’s case) parents that inevitably follow the same basic bantering script in every exchange, because what are kids of that age really telling the adults in their lives?
The subtext is that we feed on misery because sometimes, it’s the best way to actually feel something, which may be the most depressing point that “Heathers” has to make.
“No, my life’s not perfect. I don’t really like my friends.”
Not all the characters in the film are cruel. Veronica’s former best friend, the nerdy Betty Finn, is sweet and likeable, but the movie really isn’t about her -- and when she vocally envies Veronica’s social standing and dating life in a typical case of the grass seeming greener, it’s actually sad, because having seen Veronica’s experience from the lofty popular-girl perspective, you know it’s not all that great, and Veronica invites Betty over in the first place because she is so unhappy with where her life is going.
The most memorable peripheral character -- who has literally one line in the whole movie, but who factors greatly in part of the story -- is Martha Dumptruck, the fat, poorly dressed teenager who mainly serves as a punchline to everyone else’s jokes, as in an early scene when the Heathers forge a love note to Martha, allegedly from the quarterback on the football team. When she brings the note to the guy in question in the crowded cafeteria, he and his friends laugh uproariously, and the rest of the scene is drowned out by the sound of my heart breaking for her.
Later, Martha attempts suicide by walking into traffic with a suicide note -- and it’s always been really important to me that this note is addressed to the whole high school -- pinned to her shirt. When she is only injured by the effort, Heather Duke gleefully reports this news to Veronica by explaining, “Just another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people and failing miserably,” demonstrating how little anyone cares. Because it’s not about Martha, because who gives a crap what Martha thinks or feels -- she is not considered to be particularly valuable, to anyone. And anyone who’s ever been the unattractive, uncool, outsider kid in school knows exactly how sharp this apathy can feel.
“I just want my high school to be a nice place.”
One of “Heathers” many repeated lines is “Oh, the humanity,” which is funny because few characters in the film have any actual humanity. Veronica tries, but she is looking for truth and authenticity in a place where everything is fantasy and narrow subjective perspectives, and where all the bad things that happen are processed through the most self-obsessed lens possible.
The genius of “Heathers” is that it's really about the way adolescence turns us into monsters -- it is a straight-up rejection of the precious innocence depicted in so much popular media about young people. It holds a mirror up to our early social development, before we learn to dehumanize and disregard people who are ugly or uncool in more subtle and adult ways, with a comfortable distance, using socially permissable methods. It shows us the effects of valuing certain individuals over others, simply because they're conventionally attractive or privileged or can catch a ball better than anyone else. The film indicts its own audience, and makes us laugh while it does so, but in a roundabout manner where we’re not sure if it’s laughing with us, or at us.
Maybe adults are occasionally rapt by teenage trauma and tragedy because so many look back on that part of our lives with longing, when we were free to mire ourselves in narcissism and self-indulgent obsessions with our own insular worlds, when no one else relied on us and our responsibilities to others were few. Because it’s only as teenagers that we can afford to feel everything so strongly, to shift from one identity, one belief, one ideology to the next; consistency is not expected to be a part of who teenagers are. As teenagers we can be assholes and repercussions are something we only consider AFTER the actions that trigger them have been taken -- and in “Heathers,” it often seems as if nothing is real, and consequences are purely optional.
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently about the self-obsession of the millenial generation, the kids who have grown up with “selfies” and smartphones and Facebook and carefully constructed online personas. But this smothering concern over the hopeless narcissism of the younger generation is nothing new, it's rather a different framing of the same old generation gap. Indeed, if “Heathers” is anything to go by, those worrisome millenials probably aren't any more self-obsessed than their parents were. They just have different tools to express it.
By the story’s end, Veronica saves everyone -- literally -- from JD and comes out of her experience seemingly intending to rebuild her high school society as a kinder place. She finds Heather Duke in a crowded corridor and takes the fabled red power scrunchie -- originally the symbol of Heather Chandler’s HBIC-ness -- from her hair, kisses her on the cheek, and says, “Heather my love, there’s a new sheriff in town.” Veronica then invites Martha Dumptruck to hang out and watch movies together on prom night.
As Veronica and Martha Dumptruck stroll off into the proverbial sunset together, Sly and The Family Stone’s version of “Que Sera Sera” plays, as a counterpoint to the Syd Straw version that opens the film. This hopeful closing sequence ends the story with a sense of positive change, the promise of a new age of high school tolerance and understanding, of friendship and goodwill reaching across all the little cliques and subcultures of teenage life. Unfortunately, for all the absurd and outrageous events “Heathers” depicts, the irony is that this is probably the biggest fantasy of all.
You can watch "Heathers" on Netflix. Also apparently Bravo is developing a Heathers "reboot" (really a sequel) in which Veronica and her teenage daughter return to Sherwood, Ohio 20 years later to find that the daughters of the original Heathers are now Westerburg High School's ruling class. I can't personally fathom how this could ever be good, but hey, let's live in optimism.