“How very.” – Winona Ryder, Heathers (1989)
When I planned the lineup for this month, I realized one thing: we cannot have Cult Films Month without taking a look at Heathers by Michael Lehmann. This film changed the game of the teen comedy film, especially for coming at the end of the decade of beloved John Hughes films (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, etc.). While these examples are by no means bubbly and innocent, Heathers shook up this film niche with dark comedy and escalating levels of violence. I first watched Heathers one summer evening in Athens, Ohio (surrounded by a feast of Taco John’s…check them out). I remember how much the movie surprised me and delighted me with its many examples of counterculture and macabre themes. Watching it for a second time four years later, however…I took away even more.
The opening scene is one of the most iconic in 80s movie history: the Heathers, three attractive, stylish, apparently wealthy teen girls play croquet in a sunny and immaculate yard. The scene plays out very ethereal, with pastels and soft patterns all around and a soft song playing. The entire mood changes, however, when the camera jarringly cuts to Veronica (Winona Ryder) buried in the ground with just her head visible, which the Heathers target with their croquet balls. This acts as the introduction to the dynamic between Veronica and the Heathers (who have other legal names but call each other “Heather”), and we soon see more specific points of this toxic relationship.
The Heathers barely treat Veronica as a person, let alone a friend. She is essentially their servant, often an accessible target for their bullying. They also use Veronica to carry out their dirty work. For example: using Veronica’s talent for forging handwriting, the Heathers force Veronica to write fake notes to people in an attempt to humiliate them. Veronica is not proud of this arrangement, but she submits because she prefers to be on the side of the Heathers rather than on the receiving end of their abuse.
Enter J.D. (Christian Slater), a mysterious new student who watches the events among his classmates from the background. Veronica is immediately intrigued by J.D. and his defiance toward what everyone accepts as normal. Veronica soon finds herself pulling away from the Heathers and becoming more attached to J.D., finding her voice against the lead oppressor, Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) in the process. Veronica even welcomes J.D. in on a prank against Heather C., which leaves the latter dead by poisoning.
Veronica and J.D. get through the ordeal with each others’ help without getting caught. Veronica soon discovers that J.D. has even more plans for them to make a statement and upset the power structures in their school. With this new force in her life that leads to more death and destruction (all the while at odds with the new lead Heather and her growing reign), Veronica must decide what she believes in and the type of person she wants to be.
Let me start off by saying this movie did not age well. From school violence, homophobic attitudes, and just plain vicious bullying…it would not survive today with what we understand now. I would definitely label this movie as a satire, meaning it strategically ridicules those in power instead of those who are already vulnerable to abuse. The fact that the Heathers are fully aware they are a clique is the first indicator of this in the film. They openly acknowledge their position in the high school hierarchy and wield their power to their advantage. Their methods are often exaggerated. In fact, all of the characters represent their assigned stereotypes (jocks, nerds, freaks) in hyperbolic ways in this setting. This was not uncommon in 80s American teen films, but Heathers went for the extra mile. The characters are dehumanized so much in their portrayal that their humanity becomes even more pronounced in the resolution of the plot.
Veronica is the only voice of compassion in the whole story, and that becomes her power. Even through her own issues and involvement, she is the only major character who realizes how far one’s actions can go. Veronica flips the power dynamic of the story and takes what she wants without hurting innocent people. She confronts the clique mentality directly and chooses kindness over domination in the end.
Although many aspects of this film might rub most viewers the wrong way, Veronica’s character development has helped make Heathers a cult favorite for over thirty years. Rewatching this movie reminded me how reflective and impactful film is to our culture. Most of the time, the off-the-wall cult favorites are most valuable to audiences when it comes to identity. Particularly in the case of Heathers, films allow us to see ourselves (the good and bad), realize what we value, and experience lives we have never lived ourselves.
And if you’re not into the whole profound analysis thing: Heathers is a fun movie, go watch it.
Until next time,