Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) has been raised since she was a baby as part of a project known as Prescott, which trains young women to become undercover assassins. She’s always been taught to avoid any attachments but, at 16, 83 just wants a little normality, like what she’s seen in teen movies. When an op goes wrong 83 escapes, using a student exchange programme to become Megan Walsh, from Canada, and to try to have a normal high school experience. Prescott, however, has other ideas.
You Should See It Because
Barely Lethal came out around the same time as Violet and Daisy, which also toplined a talented young star (in that case Saoirse Ronan) as a teenage assassin. Often, when two similarly themed movies are released in quick succession, one will end up hitting reasonably big and the other disappearing. In this case, both movies essentially vanished, neither rating a UK cinema release. For my money it’s Barely Lethal that is worth digging up.
It has the title of a direct to video erotic thriller from 1992, but Barely Lethal surprises by being one of the most interesting mainstream teen movies of recent years. ‘Megan’s’ only experience of the way teenagers interact and of what to expect from a high school experience comes from watching teen movies like Mean Girls, Bring It On and Clueless and this leads not only to plenty of good jokes, but to a movie that is very aware of where it fits into its genre, and isn’t afraid of analysing the cliches even as it indulges in them. This is especially well done in the early scenes of Megan going to high school. For instance, when the cheerleaders ask her to have lunch with them on her first day she frames that request through both Mean Girls and her training, assuming they are lulling her into a false sense of security, only to later spring a cruel joke on her. It’s a nice joke about how movies affect our perception, topped with an almost thrown away “but we were nice” from the baffled cheerleaders.
Megan’s training leaks into her daily life at high school in other ways. She treats the entire thing as a mission, with mission profiles in her bedroom and her locker. After she becomes the person in the football team’s mascot she reacts on instinct when a rival team tries to kidnap the mascot, as is tradition, and ends up beating them up. Steinfeld does all this well, giving a sense of Megan trying hard to find a way to fit in, but only able to act on the limited understanding she has from teen movies. Another aspect of Megan’s attempt to fit in comes through her relationships, while he’s quite handsome it always feels like her attraction to Cash (Toby Sebastian), the school celebrity and singer in local band Emotacon, is based more on the idea that this is the guy her character would be into if she were in a teen movie, rather than anything he says or does. Much more natural is her easy chemistry with AV geek Roger (Thomas Mann); a sweet relationship that develops through a mutual love of corny jokes and what seems like a genuine connection in Steinfeld and Mann‘s performances.
The cast is surprisingly starry, though the biggest names - Samuel L Jackson as the operative who trained ‘Megan’, Sophie Turner as 84, ‘Megan’s rival and closest competitor at Prescott and Jessica Alba as Victoia Knox, the arms dealer that Prescott are after - have roles that amount to not much more than extended cameos. All of them are having a ball though. Samuel L Jackson seems genuinely amused in scenes where explosions are going off and he’s calmly telling seven year old girls that “this is why we wear the [bomb disposal] suit” and both Turner and Alba seem to delight in their bitchy characters and the limited action they have to do. Also excellent are Rachel E Harris, Dove Cameron and Jason Drucker as the family that Megan is staying with. Her relationship with Cameron’s Liz goes through a predictable arc from Liz being embarrassed to be seen with Megan to the two being friends and relying on each other in the final act’s action scenes, but it’s all nicely played, especially in a very funny scene when they talk about how Megan hasn’t killed anyone before in terms that sound like they’re talking about the possibility of losing their virginity.
The character writing can be fairly broad, but there are plenty of good jokes to spread around and some character development even for the supporting cast. Particularly entertaining in this respect is Gooch (Gabriel Basso), who starts out as the stereotypical jock, but has some funny scenes with Liz that reveal him to be more than just that one joke stereotype (though he also sometimes regresses amusingly). The only major misstep in the performances or in the script’s tone is Dan Fogler as a creepy teacher who clearly has a crush on Cash. It’s supposed to be funny, but is instead just icky.
The film’s action is reasonably well done. Steinfeld and Sophie Turner seem to do as much of their own work as is practical and it’s not shakycammed into nonsense. Steinfeld is no Michelle Yeoh, and nobody’s going to be asking director Kyle Newman to make The Raid 3, but the action works well for the kind of film this is.
Overall, Barely Lethal surprised me on my first viewing and has continued to do so on subsequent watches. There’s a lot here for fans of teen movies, as it really engages with the genre and does some light analysis along with a lot of very good jokes, Steinfeld’s bright performance makes an interesting counterpoint to Edge Of Seventeen and the whole package works both as a teen movie and a highly enjoyable action comedy. It’s well worth giving this one a chance.
How Can You See It?
Barely Lethal is available on DVD and Blu Ray in both the US and UK. It’s a bare bones disc, but can be found for knock down prices (I got the Blu Ray in Poundland).