Much like Cady in Mean Girls, Veronica (Winona Ryder) in Heathers finds herself drawn into the popular clique—only in this case, it’s made up of three girls all called Heather. Veronica becomes an unwilling accomplice in their cruel pranks and faces the threat of losing her own identity to that of a Heather.
Also like Cady, Veronica finds herself surrounded by the high school film clichés that we all love: enough screen time spent propped up against a locker, decade-specific clothing (occasionally co-ordinated), bleachers, cliques, the rumour mill, outcasts, puking at parties—Heathers has it all. And more.
Unlike Mean Girls, though, Heathers takes a very twisted turn early on in the film, and it becomes clear that it will delve much deeper into the harsh realities of life in high school than some of its descendants have done. Homophobia, bulimia, date rape, and ‘pranks’ of a much crueller nature than we might expect are only some of the things that the film addresses.
The ongoing, but perhaps underused, references to Alice in Wonderland only emphasise the twisted nature of teenage life, and the way in which anyone outside of ‘Wonderland’ (adults, that is) cannot begin to understand what life is like down the rabbit hole.
Teenagers are misunderstood, the problems they face treated as passing trends, and so it is no wonder that the teens themselves become desensitised to some of the most awful aspects of high school life, whether that’s teen suicide or a school shooting.
Veronica wants to take revenge on the Heathers, but her boyfriend JD takes this too far and (spoiler) the pair end up committing multiple murders and staging them to look like suicides. Veronica soon realises, however, that when you get rid of one mean girl, another simply takes her place, and that there has to be another way to fix the mess that is high school (also, murder is wrong.)
The plot at times seems to border on the ridiculous, but you can’t help thinking that if the characters were adults rather than high schoolers, you would have no problem taking the plot seriously. The film manages to make each character an individual, while emphasising that individuality can be difficult and sometimes unwanted.
After the head Heather is murdered, one of the lesser Heathers takes the lead and does all that she can to become the old Heather, taking both her old clothes and her old social standing, and abandoning some of her own insecurities. Despite this, the audience knows that behind the blurring of the Heathers, real individuals still exist. Even more surprising, and perhaps something which makes the film more genuine, is that the outcasts are real people too.
They are not just props used to showcase bullying or evoke pity, and attempts to reach out to these characters seem to be more than just an ego boost for Veronica or a condescending gesture to close the film nicely.
Despite a limited box office release and poor earnings to show for it, Heathers, a cult classic, is now heralded as the best of its kind. Edgy, disturbing, aggressively subversive and darkly comical, this film is teen drama at its greatest and for many fans redeems the entire genre.
It goes further than almost any film like it but still manages to retain that classic high school film feel—whether nostalgic or masochistic—offering an experience that we can all relate to. Leaving high school does not mean leaving behind or forgetting feelings of injustice, frustration, and angst, as any university student can attest to.
Film viewers who enjoy the likes of Mean Girls will surely enjoy its ancestor, but more importantly, people who find Mean Girls somewhat lacking might find that Heathers, the more artistic and confrontational of the two films, fills those gaps.