Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Sophie Turner, Jessica Alba, Samuel L. Jackson, Rachael Harris, Thomas Mann
Running Time: 98 minutes
It’s got a cast with kudos, including Samuel L. Jackson and Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld, yet a title which belongs to a dubious top shelf magazine. Kyle Newman’s Barely Lethal is a film with an identity crisis, not only confused by who its target audience actually is, but also what it wants to be when it grows up. Teen comedy? Action? Ironically self-aware cult teen drama? Barely Lethal has all of these elements, but it just doesn’t gel.
Steinfeld stars as Agent 83, brought up in a secret government run Academy where orphaned girls are trained to be black ops agents. Yes, you heard. If you were wondering where Samuel L. Jackson fits in, well he’s (rather typically) the bad-assed, hard man trainer, called…Hardman. 83 is his star pupil, able to throw some impressive Mortal Kombat moves and take out unfeasibly attractive arms dealer, Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba).
But 83 hasn’t got a clue how to be a teenager. Obviously, the only thing left to do is fake her own death and go undercover as a Canadian foreign exchange student in an American high school. You heard.
In a way, it’s unfair to take issue with the daft scenario. Barely Lethal, while a hodge podge of genres is a teen comedy, and this particular, if unusual situation is ripe for comic potential. After all, it’s simply another variation of the ‘outsider student braves the highs and lows of high school, learning important life lessons’ trope. It’s the set up we see in Mean Girls, which Barely Lethal references in one of its attempts to be all cool and postmodern when 83 studies it along with Clueless and Beverly Hills 90210 to help prepare for her new mission. In another scene, 83 actually turns down an offer to sit with some cheerleaders, pointing out that she’s seen the film and knows all about The Plastics.
This all does present some scenarios with a bit of comic mileage. The sight of 83 tarted up in perfect teen mag hair, makeup and clothes, wobbling in stilettos down the corridor to the disgusted glances of students sloping around in Converse and jeans does say something about the fakery of teen drama, but it’s certainly no Mean Girls Halloween party scene. It’s just as well 83 didn’t use Byker Grove in her ‘yoof’ culture research. I can see her now in black polyester trousers and a perm gelled back tightly into a scrunchie.
If you’re happy to suspend your disbelief (and surely any cinema goer is), then Barely Lethal does look slick, while the casting and performances are all strong, even if Samuel L. Jackson isn’t exactly breaking the mould. Hailee Steinfeld is a wholly engaging lead, and supporting cast Sophie Turner (as frenemy Agent 84) and Dove Cameron (as exchange buddy Liz) are both skilled; Cameron in particular has a knack with comedy.
But where Barely Legal stumbles is in its tone and target audience. The premise suggests Disney pre-teen, but the themes and violence (and that dodgy title) suggests an older viewer. The self-reflexivity that pervades the film, all the nods to the wider culture of teen drama, proposes an older audience again, one that’s knowing and probably likes Heathers. But Heathers, this is not. Barely Lethal may have looked good on paper, but there’s just too much of a mish mash going on here.
Barely Lethal is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.