High school is all about who your friends are – they define you. Our heroine Veronica (Winona Ryder) falls in love with rebel J.D. (Christian Slater) and determines to teach a group of popular girls a lesson.
Heathers is a film from 1989 that deals with high school life. It’s dark, macabre, and scathing of the dichotomy that exists in adolescent life. If you’re not cool then you’re clearly not someone important. This is the heart of the narrative and it’s what Veronica rebels against.
School is a place of peer pressure, bullying, and often unhappiness. It’s a time in most people’s lives that’s characterised by hormones and bad decisions. In Heathers there are the issues of teenage suicide and hyper versions of traditional cliques – in this movie they’re not only exclusive but also capable of violence and murder. It’s not an easy life being a teen and it’s certainly harder than usual in Heathers.
For kids it’s an easier film to understand than it may be for adults. It riffs on the usual stereotypes of a John Hughes movie but approaches them with something more akin to satire than realism. It is certainly a product of its time too but instead of the cheery everything works out in the end tropes of movies like Back to the Future (1985) there is a distinct lack of positivity.
Counter culture influences
Michael Lehmann the director of Heathers said, “Teenagers don’t have trouble with it. It’s always adults that are shocked.” And so it is with any counter culture. The parents don’t understand, society is offended and challenged, and often it’s just what the kids want. They don’t want to share their world with the grown ups. Heathers is a film that speaks of the youthful experience, contextualised by the eighties, and it’s immediately relatable to its target audience and anyone born after its release.
It’s had a marked influence on narrative film and the darker slicker production is more reflective of films from the nineties than films from its own decade. The plot of Heathers follows Veronica, a girl so shocked by the behaviour of her cool friends (three girls, each named Heather) that she determines to murder them and cover up their deaths as suicides. This is heavy subject matter, dark and malicious, and interesting fare for a teen high school movie.
Adolescent corpses on screen however are perhaps less shocking these days than they were when the film was released. That does influence the way that Heathers affects audiences now but as a product of its time (video nasties being a key phrase) it says a lot still. You’d be hard pressed to find a John Hughes movie with a similar tone or even a high school movie that deals with something more than simply losing your virginity (there are some).
Not your usual teen movie
That’s part of the strength of Heathers. It doesn’t deal with the usual problems of adolescence. Instead it places kids in decidedly adult situations and leaves them to deal with it. Our heroine Veronica seeks to change the status quo at her high school and she does so by befriending rebel J.D. He is visually everything that a rebel should be. He rides a motorcycle, wears a leather jacket, and keeps himself distinct from the rest of the high school population.
In J.D. Veronica finds a Clyde to her Bonnie and they push each other further and further towards a different reality altogether. J.D. discovers Veronica’s desire to rid herself of her friends and he suggests a plot, a solution, and a way to make her macabre dreams a reality. When Heather no. 1 dies and her death is seen as a suicide it becomes clear to Veronica that in J.D. she has found someone not only capable, but also willing to do her dirty work for her.
Bigger issues than adolescence
Heathers is a film about adolescence but its characters deal with things much bigger than simply growing up. It’s a hyper version of reality and one where murder pacts actually happen. Veronica and J.D. make some horrible decisions and their legacy is one of death and destruction. But the odd tone of Heathers never makes their actions seem unforgivable.
We all know people that treat others badly. In high school it’s perhaps clearer than it is in adult life. Bullies however will always be a problem and there are few of us that haven’t at one point or another wished harm on someone else. Heathers deals with what happens if our wishes were to come true.
Heathers is not Pretty In Pink (1986), it’s not 16 Candles (1984), what it is is a film that deals with the hierarchy in high school life quite literally. It also explores something universal, something that every adolescent will experience – the loss of innocence. In that Heathers finds its message but its tone is something else entirely.