Despite a whirlwind charm offensive from Hailee Steinfeld and some decent moments, Barely Lethal is a wasted opportunity.
Pro-Tip for all aspiring teenage/high school comedies: NEVER invoke the names of Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, et al during the course of your film. Just don’t. Ever. Do not bring them up, either as homages or having characters mention them by name for whatever reason, as all it does is make you look worse off by comparison and leaving the viewer, myself in this case, wondering why they’re not just watching those frequently-much-better films. The DVD cover of Mean Girls is prominently displayed at one early point in Barely Lethal and I strongly considered turning off the latter to watch the former again, even though I already re-watched Mean Girls exactly one month ago!
That’s actually being rather unnecessarily harsh on Barely Lethal, which isn’t as bad as its godawful title and trailer suggests it will be. It’s just the kind of film that can’t stop making really obvious, really amateur, and really easy-to-avoid mistakes no matter how hard it tries. And it keeps making them over and over and over, like a parent who still cannot operate a DVR despite having had the same one for 8 goddamn years.
So, for those not aware, Barely Lethal follows Megan (Hailee Steinfeld) who, orphaned at a young age, has spent her life being raised by a secretive branch of the US government that turns little girls into stone-cold killer assassins, headed by Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). She’s top of her class and the first of them to be activated, much to the irritation of her rival Heather (an utterly wasted Sophie Turner), but disagrees with Hardman’s “no attachments” policy and, whilst on various assignments, finds herself drawn to and desiring a normal teenage life. When a mission to capture evil arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) goes wrong, Megan takes the opportunity to fake her death, relocate to a quiet American town, and attend high school, posing as a foreign exchange student for a nice family.
From there, things proceed exactly as you’re expecting them to, which is the first big shame. The spy/assassin elements never quite gel with the high school elements, you see, with the former just kinda walking in and out of the film whenever it pleases, leaving the majority of the film basically being another “fish-out-of-water high school” movie but with an unnecessarily complex backstory to that “fish-out-of-water” part. The tone is also wildly unsatisfying, not committing enough to the dark comedy and more unsavoury implications of the spy/assassin part, but also not committing enough to the high school tone to be sincere and genuine, occupying a middle-ground that leaves everything feeling weak: the spy stuff too toothless, the high school stuff too underdeveloped.
Incidentally, I could tell that this was written by a man even if I hadn’t seen the titles and done my research, such is the utter disdain the film shows for high school and especially for teenage girls. Even the most utterly blistering takedowns of high school culture, like the aforementioned Mean Girls, have some semblance of caring for its targets, usually out of a desire to want the place and people to be better and much less sh*tty. Barely Lethal really doesn’t, and so every last cliché in the high school movie book – bitchy girls, arsehole teenagers who are cruel to everybody for no real reason, lecherous and/or painfully uncool teachers, hunky yet vapid and self-centred boy (Toby Sebastian) who our lead is inexplicably all over instead of their equally as attractive yet slightly dorky best friend (Thomas Mann) who acts like a petulant child when she doesn’t crush back on him – gets trotted out and abused with no substance or wit or subversive intent. It’s basically Baby’s First High School with extra bitter vitriol.
Or, to put it another way, this is a real exchange in this movie that caused me to genuinely and involuntarily groan out loud.
“There is an army of highly trained murderous psychopaths out to get me!”
“Hey, you survived high school.”
It’s a really lazy and underdeveloped movie, basically. How lazy? It has a montage set to “Bad Reputation” just like EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF HIGH SCHOOL-SET MEDIA IN HUMAN EXISTENCE. Nothing feels natural, nothing feels paced, it just blazes through everything at 200MPH. The point when Hardman inevitably tracked down Megan should be where the last third kicks off but I had a sneaking suspicion that the film wasn’t even halfway done, a suspicion that was promptly confirmed when I checked my watch and saw that we were only 40 minutes in. The pre-high school stuff encompasses the film’s opening 10 minutes. 10. Out of 105. With the rest of those minutes instead being dedicated to trotting out every cliché in short order. Surprising nobody, this means that the cast aren’t so much characters as one-note archetypes/stereotypes that their actors and actresses are supposed to fill in through sheer force of personality.
To her credit, this is something that Hailee Steinfeld manages to pull off. Megan’s character, on paper, very much reads as a walking “Chloë Grace Moretz said ‘no’”, which is how it could have turned out in lesser hands. Yet Steinfeld makes it her own in a number of ways. She carries herself and convinces near-totally as somebody raised to become something they don’t really want to be, and who just wants to be normal; somebody who is genuinely out-of-their-comfort-zone at high school. She’s also convincing at kicking ass when required, but not to the extent where I sit and wonder why she’s upset over the evil high school clichés instead of tearing through them like a hot knife through butter. Then there’s her natural goofy charm, which is just so easily endearing and ultimately makes it hard not to like and enjoy time with Megan. Between this and Pitch Perfect 2, which utilised said goofy charm way better but hey ho, Steinfeld very much seems to be in the part of her career where she’s a one-woman charm offensive, which is something I am not at all complaining about.
Unfortunately, her co-stars’ attempts to do the same are hampered by the simple fact that they don’t get enough screen-time to do so. Sophie Turner is asked to do absolutely nothing besides be the film’s alpha bitch, not helped by the fact that she just walks in and out of the film at random points, giving no weight to her inevitable final showdown with Megan. Jessica Alba seems to be trying to turn Knox into a witty and snarky yet legitimately dangerous villain but she gets maybe 10 minutes at best and her entire existence is just for perfunctory finale fireworks, whilst Samuel L. Jackson just kinda Samuel L. Jacksons for a bit, now seemingly at the part of his career where he will appear in quite literally anything that’s willing to provide him with money. OK, more so than usual.
As for the action sequences… Well, you know how Spy just proved than an action-comedy can and, in fact, should be just as proficient at the action sequences as the comedy sequences? Turns out that Kyle Newman, who also directed 2009’s should-have-been-better Fanboys, is not Paul Feig. The film’s low-budget radiates from how incredibly small scale the very few action sequences are, and all of them are shot abysmally and edited haphazardly. The stand-out awful action sequence though is undoubtedly Megan and Heather’s big throw-down which, despite needing to be this big payoff, is near-incomprehensible due to excessively gratuitous camera shaking and unnecessarily tight framing. Rule #1 of fight scenes in movies: the viewer needs to be able to see what’s going on!
And it’s little amateur mistakes like that which sink Barely Lethal. I wanted to like this movie, and I do like certain parts of it – Hailee Steinfeld is a bona-fide charmer, there are the occasional funny lines, and the eventual bond that Megan makes with her ‘foster sister’ Liz (Dove Cameron) is kinda sweet and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing – but it’s one of those films that seems to believe that openly acknowledging its awareness of high school movie clichés gives it Carte blance to indulge in them anyway. It wastes its premise on excessively trod ground and, unlike The DUFF, it’s too lazy (and rather vindictive) to come up with good enough material to make up for that fact.
Hailee Steinfeld is clearly destined to become A Star, regardless of whether it’s Serious Actor Steinfeld from works like True Grit or Charming Movie Star Steinfeld from this and Pitch Perfect 2, and she deserves films that are willing to work as hard and be as good as she is. Barely Lethal is just not that film, and pure charisma alone can’t prop up a boring, disappointing, lazy waste of a movie.