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Heathers: An Educational Analysis

By Emma Davis

Edited by Ella Fasciano

{Minor Spoilers Ahead}

Every high-schooler deals with cliques and mean girls. Some teens work through this by ignoring it, some with therapy. Murder, however, is an unconventional option. Heathers, a 1988 film directed by Micheal Lehmann, takes a dark, satirical, more R-rated look at the iconic ‘queen bee’ trope. This black comedy, which spans 103 minutes, stars Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. The film deals with heavy topics like suicide, peer pressure, and eating disorders, all while emulating teenage angst.

Heathers takes place in the small, fictional town of Sherwood, Ohio. It mainly revolves around Westerburg High School and one specific clique within the school— the Heathers. This group consists of Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk), and our main character, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder). The Heathers rule the school. Others want to either be them or be noticed by them.

The film opens on a scene where the Heathers are playing croquet, seemingly one of their favorite activities. As Heather Chandler hits the ball, the camera follows it to where it hits Veronica, who appears to be stuck in the ground, on the head. This allows audiences to become intrigued, as it has a shock factor. Within seconds, it is revealed to be a fictional sequence that Veronica created in her head while sitting in the school hallway writing a diary entry. In this initial diary entry, we are introduced to Veronica’s qualms about her friends. She recalls an instance where Heather Chandler stated that she helps people learn to “spread their wings and fly”. Veronica is writing her snarky reply when Heather Duke and McNamara interrupt her, claiming that Chandler needs her in the cafeteria. Once in the cafeteria, Veronica makes eye contact with a new student and introduces herself. Jason Dean (Christian Slater), or JD as referred to throughout the movie, is apathetic and impulsive. When confronted by stereotypical jock types, JD pulls a blank-filled gun on them, giving the audience the first look at his twisted ways. Despite this, there is an obvious connection between JD and Veronica. As the movie progresses, we learn more about the Heathers. Using angles and camera positioning along with well-written scenes, we can see that Chandler appears to always be in charge. The others seem to shrink away from her. The movie also reveals exactly how Veronica feels about her friends through her narrated diary entries. It seems that she does not enjoy being with them because of their attitudes and mind-games, especially when it comes to Chandler. After meeting, Veronica and JD start consorting more and more. JD plays into Veronica’s insecurities about her friends, easily getting in her head and manipulating her. Over the course of the film, Veronica finds herself in violent, upsetting situations, sanctioned by JD. He promises he can end her friendship troubles. As Veronica becomes more self-aware, she recognizes how psychotic JD is and attempts to distance herself, but JD continues his destructive ways.

Heathers, while intense, has very real insight on teenage angst and issues. I found some scenes or lines have deeper meanings that I could fully relate to. I believe this to be the director’s purpose— to create a relatable world underneath the layers of satire. Take the character names for example. Three Heathers and a Veronica. It is obvious that Veronica is the outlier, and throughout her character, we can see this. We see the need to fit in with her group, as well as her own insecurities. This explains how she is so compliant with JD’s radical plans. The first cafeteria scene shows how she changes herself to fit in with the Heathers. Veronica participates in a vicious prank on a fellow classmate. She hesitates at first, not wanting to use the student for entertainment, but gives in to the peer pressure to fit in with her group. That scene alone embodies something many teens struggle with daily. To me, one of the strongest parts of the film is the color coordination of the characters with their rooms, homes, and clothing. This seems to represent the seemingly binary rules of their world. In a certain croquet scene, it is mentioned that, earlier, Heather Duke, seen in green for the majority of the film, had asked to be red, Heather Chandler’s color. Chandler was appalled by this. It seems like the colors could represent some sort of rank, of which green is at the bottom and red is at the top. Duke wants to climb the ladder in the social rankings. She even takes Chandler’s iconic red scrunchie and claims it as her own- this shows a transfer of power. However, at the very end of the film, Veronica takes the scrunchie from Duke, obviously showing another shift of power— her dialogue even confirms it. “Heather, my love,” says Veronica, “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Another strong, crucial part of the movie is Winona Ryder herself. Ryder’s agent begged her to refuse the Veronica role, saying that it would tarnish her resume, but Ryder took it anyway and made it what it is. Without her portrayal of the troubled yet well-meaning teen, the film would not be the same. The acting would possibly fall flat or even be too strong without her. She provides the perfect balance that sums up a normal teenager. While it makes the film what it is, a weakness may be how dark the script is. The film was a box-office flop, earning less than half its budget. The biting comedy and intense subject matter may have been its downfall, preventing parents from taking their teens to see it, thinking that their children would be influenced by the horrific actions of the characters. The R rating prevented the intended age-range from attending alone. Despite this, I fully enjoy Heathers. It is one of my favorites. I do not mind the dark take on the teenage years, nor do I feel that the action taken by the characters are particularly influential. The film is an intriguing take on the high school years, and a great example of a satire. I would definitely recommend it. It has a relatable and ‘edgy’ script, and the format is interesting and allows you to discover more nuances every time you watch.

Heathers. The original Mean Girls. This film leaves you stunned yet seen. It is rewatchable, interesting, and a bold addition to the teen movie era of the 80s. The fresh take on teenage angst, the subtleties of the script, and the accuracy of the actors come together to make this a film that still stands strong after 30 years. Despite the fact that the ending (no spoilers!) may be seen as controversial in this day and age, it is something that many can enjoy— hence why it has become an oft-quoted cult film. The popularity of it online spawned a 2012 musical, which is highly popular on social media. It even spawned tons of TikTok sounds. Obviously, the genius of Heathers lives on.

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