Michael Lehmann's Heathers (1989), which premiered in Sundance the same year as sex, lies and videotape, heralded the Gen-X cycle. The filmmakers' caustic vision transforms teen-age suicide into a dark farce whose tone is giddy and intent serious. Daniel Waters wrote the script for two years while working as a videostore manager.
The idea was born out of his “warped fantasies” about high-school girls and his column in the school paper, “Troubled Waters,” which depicted cynical ramblings of the kind that set Heathers apart. Waters had the “weird hobby” of reading Seventeen magazine the way other kids would read comic books. “I've always loved books about angsty young girls who would write in their diaries and complain about life.” Reading Simone de Beauvoir's The Seond Sex, Waters was “amazed” by her observations about women's self-hatred. He thought the way girls maintain their own oppression-hating fat girls more than guys–was “great stuff” for a movie.
Films about suicide have tended to give it a noble feel, but Waters wanted “to take suicide off the menu of people's brains.” It never occurred to him that a film satirizing suicide might prove controversial, but many Hollywood agents were alarmed by it. Helmer Lehmann encountered similar touchiness even after New World Pictures agreed to invest $3 million. The mother of one teen actress who auditioned said the script was “satanic” and the filmmakers the “voice of evil.”
But open-minded viewers were provoked by scenes in which a teacher earnestly counsels a student: “Whether or not to kill yourself is one of the most important decisions a teen-ager has to make.” “There are people who thought it a glib, cynical, socially irresponsible view of high school,” Lehmann said. But the filmmakers held that their treatment of the issue was responsible, that “teenagers don't have any problem with it; it's always adults who are shocked.”
Fearing that their movie might be deemed pretentious in the way it addresses the malaise affecting youth, they decided to undercut the high-mindedness for laughs. Hence, they perceived school as a cruel environment and adolescence as a time of “being angry and cynical,” expecting viewers right out of school to be entertained by their satire.
The slang in Heathers was made up, based on the writer's belief that duplicating actual teen-age slang invites obsolescence. Most films about teenagers are based on dialogue recorded in cafeterias, but by the time the movie gets made, the slang is out of date. For his film, Waters invented new lingo, evidenced by Veronica's speech to her oblivious parents: “Great pate, but I have to motor if I want to be ready for that funeral.”
In Heathers, the popular high-school beauties are a cross between the angst-ridden teenagers of John Hughes and David Lynch. With its teenage cast and school setting, Heathers ran the risk of being mistaken as yet another adolescent romp, but this satire was audaciously twisted. The middle-American high school is dominated by a callow clique, “The Heathers,” named after three perfectly groomed girls sharing the same name. As the name of choice, Heather signifies power, popularity and license to make mischief. The trio (Shannen Doherty, Kim Walker and Lisanne Falk) cruise the cafeteria with a fourth reluctant member, Veronica (Winona Ryder) in tow.
Veronica, who scribbles diary entries about their exploits, has misgivings about their conduct. She doesn't like their predilection for dirty tricks, but she goes along with them, taunting some classmates, flirting and complimenting others on their clothes.
Defying etiquette, Veronica falls for a motorcyclist outcast, J.D. (Christian Slater). Alienated by her mates' causal cruelty and selfish vanity, she wishes them dead, and the Mephistophelian J.D. finds original ways to fulfill her darkest wishes. As the body count at Westerburgh High grows, J.D. and his accomplice disguise the murders as suicide. The filmmakers expose the hypocrisy of kids and parents in their hollow, media-conditioned responses to tragedy.
The gun-toting newcomer, J.D. goads Veronica into playing out her resentments. When the wicked Heather Chandler pushes Veronica too far, J.D. suggests slipping her a drink laced with kitchen cleaner, and encourages Veronica to forge a proper suicide message: “People think just because you're beautiful and popular, life is easy and fun. No one understood that I had feelings too”; using the word “myriad” impresses the teachers. For their part, exhilarated by their murderous prank, Veronica and J.D. raise the ante. The next “suicides” are a pair of lame-brained football players. J.D., who likes planting props at the scene of the crime, leaves a bottle of mineral water, because in Ohio this item signifies homosexuality.
Buoyant style and spirit turns Heathers into a mean-spirited sitcom, with its originality extending beyond the limits of ordinary school romp into the realm of the perverse–as one character says, “The extreme always seems to make an impression.” As long as Lehmann and Waters have the temerity to sustain the bracingly nasty tone, Heathers is good fun. But the jaundiced vision of adolescence isn't as cynical as it appears, and the film loses its nerve when it demands that Veronica wake up to her crimes. At the end, Veronica is reestablished as a “nice” girl, but this turnabout isn't convincing, undermining the spiky, sardonic style.