Director: Jennifer Kaytlin Robinson
Stars: Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke, Sarah Michelle Gellar
Amid royal funerals, the spiraling cost of living and wars abroad, sometimes it feels like some good ol’ fashion escapism would be welcome. Just for a little bit. If Netflix fills any space in the cultural landscape anymore it is in this regard. Light, untroubling, undemanding material that keeps us from the terror of endless chaos. Our heads shouldn’t always be in the sand, but sometimes that sand is cooling.
The latest offering is Jennifer Kaytlin Robinson’s Do Revenge, which takes the tics and idioms of Gen Z and applies them to the staples of the golden high school bitch comedies of 20-30 years ago. The intention clearly being a Mean Girls for the ’00s babies. And hey, everyone deserves a share in that fun.
Robinson introduces us to Drea (Camila Mendes) and the rich and pretty of Palm Beach; her little corner of affluent American suburbia. In essence its the modern equivalent of the fairy tale princess in her castle, except the people are revolting. When a sex-tape of her is leaked, Drea blames her boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams) and vows revenge. Cue Olivia Rodrigo on the soundtrack and bubblegum intertitles.
Here we switch perspectives to the jaded narration of Eleanor (Maya Hawke), who lays out the series of ‘cringe’ events that lead her into a vengeance pact with Drea. Eleanor – whose sexuality has been outed against her will – reticently enters into an agreement with Drea, who suggests they help one another relocate their righteousness, whether it’s grammatically accurate or not. Call it mutually beneficial destruction.
Further hashtagging the era of teen movies Robinson has been pleasingly inspired by, Sarah Michelle Gellar makes a welcome appearance as the school’s headmaster, while the soundtrack – scattershot as it is – occasionally flags these same reference points (usages of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Harvey Danger are prime examples). See too the prim public school uniforms and hot pastels that typify the wardrobes inhabited by these young women (Eleanor aside), acting as visual cues that hark back to Clueless and the aforementioned Mean Girls. Do Revenge would love to be called ‘Fetch’. Eleanor even calls herself a “disciple of the ’90s teen movie”, suggesting that – of all the characters present – she best represents Robinson and her co-writer Celeste Ballard.
At least… for a while…
Genre staples are dutifully embraced. The scene in which Eleanor is introduced to the varying campus cliques by hipster exposition queen Gabbi (Talia Ryder) is a High School Movie standard adhered to to a T. See also the inevitable “problematic makeover” montage. The accentuated, arch dialogue is a part and parcel of this tradition. Robinson and Ballard throw in a few C-bombs for caustic effect, but here too they are adhering to the spice and affectations of an established genre. Even the self-aware casting of actors in their mid-twenties to portray teens feels like a meta embrace of convention (Sophie Turner?? Still???).
But Do Revenge isn’t all retro signposting. It addresses modern minefields. Max’s performative activism is a smartly observed reflection of CIS grandstanding for popularity points, and how such narcissism undermines those it proposes to embrace (Max’s slogan “I love me” particularly underscores this). Social media and personal privacy remain on-point present day concerns as bullying has evolved in the digital age, and so Do Revenge reflects.
At her most vulnerable, Drea makes revealing statements that many of the film’s peers will relate to. “I’m just so angry all the time” and – yet more angsty – “Sometimes it just hurts to exist”. These are typical, even cliché teenage woes, but their universal truth cuts to the quick. What if we dig in here? Today’s youth is so bombarded by the world’s injustices that it reflects potently in Do Revenge’s thesis on striking back somehow. It speaks to a collective yearning for action. A funneling of our shared sense of helplessness into something productive. A need to revolt. Drea’s potential love interest Russ (Rish Shah) offers an alternative (healthier?) approach via artistic expression.
Still, Do Revenge could do with a few more surprises than it ultimately brings. Drea and Eleanor are, of course, little better than the targets of their ire (particularly Drea, for whom vindictiveness comes like second nature learned from her bitchy peers). It’s a realisation we in the audience will of course make long before it dawns on them. Cleaving so close to formula sometimes leads to, well, formulaic results. Ultimately there’s little happening here that Euphoria hasn’t been tackling from a different tonal vantage, but Robinson’s affection for her chosen style is bold, sincere and infectious, especially to those of us old enough to share her sense of nostalgia.
And long may the SMG renaissance continue.