At one point in Barely Lethal, a perky teenage special-ops agent played by True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld binge-watches Mean Girls, Clueless, some John Hughes movies and other titles from the teen canon in a kind of anthropological study of high school. Yearning for a normal adolescence, she tries to construct one, Margaret Mead-style.
It’s easy to imagine that the makers of this PG-13 action comedy did the same thing, because their movie borrows every trope while leaving out both the heart and brains that made the characters in those films welcome cinematic companions through high school and beyond.
The second feature from Fanboys director Kyle Newman and first for screenwriter John D’Arco, Barely Lethal is more a pitch — La Femme Nikita meets Mean Girls, Hit-Girl meets Pretty in Pink — than an actual movie with fleshed-out, rootable characters.
The premise, that high school is more perilous than a life of espionage, is witty and full of potential. But Newman makes that case by staging his car chases and fight scenes with as much sense of drama as eighth-period trig.
If not for the too-fancy cast, this movie would seem at home on ABC Family. Instead, Barely Lethal is getting a nominal release from A24, the plucky distributor behind more innovative, edgier youth-skewing movies such as Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring and Obvious Child.
Barely Lethal is clearly confused about its intended audience, starting with the icky title, a pun on the porn label that selects and photographs models to emphasize their youth. Get it, girls? You’re too young to be a trained killing machine like Jason Bourne or to give him consent. LOL!
Steinfeld’s Agent 83 attends a secret government school for training little girls to be assassins, where schoolmaster Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to have responded to a casting call for “a Samuel L. Jackson type,” looms menacingly and barks dialogue while running his students through inane exercises. The girls stab baby dolls as a way of learning that they should form no emotional attachments, and learn to fire automatic weapons and round-kick one another while wearing sports bras and capri-length yoga pants.
Yearning for a life that is less Daniel Craig, more Molly Ringwald, 83 fakes her own death and creates a new identity as foreign exchange student Megan Walsh of Regina, Saskatchewan. Really, 83, you watched Mean Girls and you still picked a hometown that rhymes with “vagina?”
Jessica Alba, who herself played an action heroine in her breakout TV series Dark Angel 15 years ago, is the villain here, and there is a certain seductive fun in seeing the now-34-year-old actress tweak her own image.
“You and I actually do have a lot in common,” Alba’s Victoria Knox tells Megan. “Except I’m not a psycho bitch,” the youngster replies. “Give it some time,” Knox says.
Actually, that’s sound advice for the cast of young women here, who are appealing and capable but woefully underused. Great teen movies serve a function higher than entertainment — they remind the awkward adolescent that she is not alone, that her foremothers also coped with cruel classmates, unrequited crushes, clueless parents. It would be lovely to see these actresses in a movie that respects them enough to do that.
Instead, poor Steinfeld, playing the same kind of eager newbie she does in the far more satisfying Pitch Perfect 2, delivers dopey lines such as “Transpo at O-700 hours” to her bewildered foreign exchange family and falls for the irritating, emo popular guy.
Sophie Turner, best known as the steely Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones, is 83’s rival at the school and brings a feline physicality to the movie’s action scenes. As 83’s acerbic host sister, Disney Channel alumna Dove Cameron is the source of the best comedy in the film and the audience’s proxy, asking, “Do you never tire of this ‘I’m in a teen movie’ thing?”
Really, 83, blink twice if you do. I bet there’s a real teen girl in there somewhere.
Exclusive: AMC Mesquite; video-on-demand
Director: Kyle Newman
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Jessica Alba
Rated: PG-13 (sexual material, teen drinking, strong language, drug references, action violence)
Running time: 100 min.