What's my damage?

What's my damage?

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Winona

It's been a bad day at Westerburg High.

I think I committed a parenting foul this weekend, but luckily, Little Princess assures me she won't be scarred for life. 

It didn't take me very long to realize my mistake. Now that I have, I am reacting like any thoughtful, mature grownup would: I blame her older sister.

See, Slightly Older Princess loves musicals, and she's always on the lookout for whatever cool new thing might be headed down Broadway. She happened to mention a while ago that they'd made the 1988 movie "Heathers" into a musical. I replied that I had really liked that movie and in fact owned an old VHS copy of it if she wanted to see it. She said she'd rather see the musical, and indeed, a few months later, she'd not only seen the musical (online) but the movie that inspired it (also online.)

(I refer you to my earlier blog post about being utterly flummoxed at how, or even whether, I can police my children's screen viewing without simply eliminating all electronic devices within a 30-mile radius: http://bit.ly/1L6C2xJ.  By the time I even hear about such things, well, game over.)

So anyway, she said she liked the musical better, and we might have left at that, but Little Princess had come across a reference to "Heathers" in a book she was reading and wanted to know more. I explained it was a very dark satirical '80s movie that I'd particularly liked, and said I'd be glad to watch it with her sometime. SOP was sleeping over at a friend's last night, so we toggled up our new Netflix account and pulled up "Heathers." 

If you've never seen the movie, which stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, just think about a John Hughes film with a really savage sense of humor and then set it in a high school gone horribly wrong.

Even if you have seen it, and you think you remember, you might want to give it another look and see if you feel any differently about it now.

Because I have seen it at least a couple of times, but likely not since, say, the early '90s, or whenever I bought the VHS copy. I was a freshman in college when it was first released. I thought it was hilarious at the time. But even trying to describe it here indicates how much trouble I'm having with it now.

WARNING: Spoiler descriptions follow.

It's about a clique of high school girls all named Heather, led by a particularly socially vicious teen, and what happens when her non-Heather friend, Veronica (Rider), gets involved in a plot with her boyfriend, J.D. (Slater), that ends in that Heather's death.

Panicking, Veronica and J.D. write a fake suicide note for Heather. That leads to a chain of events that doesn't just put the social norms of high school, American teenagers and youth suicide itself to the skewer: It practically skins them alive and sets them on fire. Compared to "Heathers," "Mean Girls" is "The Andy Griffith Show." 

I won't do a full-scale 5-cent critic review, but I will say watching the movie as a 19-year-old college freshman in 1988 is a very different experience than watching it as a 47-year-old parent of 14- and 16-year-old daughters in 2016.

We had suicides, sure, but we hadn't had Columbine yet, or 9/11. When J.D. pulls out the .44 Magnum to scare the jocks in the cafeteria, it was cruelly funny, but not frightening. When those same jocks (SPOILER) end up in adjoining coffins in what J.D. and Veronica fraudulently portray as a homosexual love affair murder-suicide, I no longer nod at the sweet social justice. I look at the dad exclaiming that he loves his dead gay son and I think of all the read dead gay sons in the world and how their parents are feeling.

Maybe I would have felt differently watching it alone. But with Little Princess beside me on the couch, I felt almost queasy. "Here, beloved daughter of mine, let me show you this sick, twisted film about this sick, twisted high school! It'll be great! I'll make popcorn."

Little Princess is 14 and not really a sheltered violet. Still, after the first death, I told her it was darker than I remembered and offered to turn it off and find something more cheerful. But we ended up watching the whole thing, and when it was over she said she could definitely see why it was funny — she just didn't feel like she could laugh. I didn't feel like it, either.

And yet: If you can somehow set aside Columbine and the facts of real youth suicides, the movie still has a lot to say. LP and I talked about how easy it is to glorify suicide and how the movie exposes that danger. We also talked about how the movie exaggerates the absolute worst qualities in people — the shallow interactions between parents and teens, for instance, and the barbaric caste system in your average high school — and how it might serve as an inspiration to Not Be That Way. 

J.D. tells Veronica to imagine he blew up the school: not just their school, but all the schools. The only place different social types can genuinely get along with each other is in heaven, he says. "People will look at the ashes of Westerburg and say, 'Now there's a school that self-destructed, not because society didn't care, but because the school was society.'"

That has particular resonance lately when everything I read, watch or listen to indicates we're, shall we say, having a little trouble getting along lately.

Veronica's mother tells her, "When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it's usually because they are being treated like human beings."

In other words, more often than not, this is how human beings treat each other. And is that what we want? Do we like the results? 

I'm surprised anyone thought of making "Heathers" into a musical — and now that I remember it a little more clearly, I want to get SOP's impression of just what that musical was like. I wouldn't think "Heathers" could be made today at all.

And yet, it's not like if we ignore issues, they go away, or that there's no place in this world for satire, even satire so dark you practically have to watch it with a spotlight at high noon in July. As J.D. says, the extreme always seems to make an impression. Maybe sometimes that's what we need.

How very.

Still, I think the best lesson "Heathers" managed to impart to LP through our weekend movie night is that it's never a good idea to date psychopaths. When she enters high school this fall, I hope she'll remember.

— Jennifer Moody is a reporter, mom and "Star Wars" fan who's always happy to see the world becoming a little more geeky.

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