Oh man was I prepared to love Barely Lethal. Sure, with a title that’s a poor pun of a porn mag, it doesn’t sound too promising. But the trailer promised teen assassins, high school fish-out-of-water antics, and Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner as a murderous mean girl. Sansa Stark ditching her regal niceties for mini-skirts and martial arts? Yes please.
Unfortunately, Barely Lethal isn’t as sharp, funny or satisfying as it aims to be. But despite missing its mark, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.
Hailee Steinfeld stars as Agent 83, a teen orphan who’s never known family, just the cold embrace of an elite quasi-military training program. Samuel L. Jackson plays her stern supervisor, who urges her to shun any emotional attachments so she can be the best hit-girl possible. But when a mission gone awry leaves 83 a window for escape, she uses it to live her dream: enrolling in a normal high school.
Her intel for this self-imposed mission is every teen movie you’ve ever loved, from Mean Girls to Clueless, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club to Bring It On and 10 Things I Hate About You. Armed with all the clichés of teen coming-of-age comedies and a special set of deadly skills, she becomes an exchange student and delves into the average teen experience. It’s a premise ripe to send-up high school stereotypes and teen movie tropes. Regrettably, the script by John D’Arco is a dud, offering lame lines (“You look like you made out with Mr. Potato Head”—what does that even mean?) and dated pop culture references (remember how The L Word was a thing?)
Barely Lethal actually starts off strong with a animated opening credits sequence that paints the life 83 is so ready to run from. (It includes her riding a dolphin to bomb a baddie, which is a life I’d stick with. But whatevs.) Then, we dive into the insane training program she was brought up in which involves teeny tiny “007-year-olds” wielding flame-throwers and racing sports cars, all while Jackson gives them tough guy guff. Yes yes yes! It’s Totally Spies and I’m totally in.
Sadly, Barely Lethal loses momentum as soon as 83 becomes Megan. From there, the film falls into the expected rhythms of teen movies, complete with love triangle between the cute guy (a John Mayer wannabe who soulfully sings such cringe-inducing lyrics as “Hey girl from Canada, I’m just a Man-a-da!”) and a nerd who loves tech stuff and puns. There are mean girls, and a reluctant soon-to-be BFF. But all the beats are clunky, with few characters ever developing beyond their most basic broad strokes. Not to mention an espionage plot that is both predictable and nonsensical. Plus its budget feels tight, allowing for only passable green screen effects and unspectacular fashion. (In a teen comedy, the clothes can make a big difference. Remember Cher’s closet? Of course you do.)
But, gang, I don’t care. Because with all its faults, Barely Lethal is nonetheless cute and affably mindless entertainment.
Steinfeld is a suitable and sweet lead. But it’s really the supporting turns by gal pal Dove Cameron, her ruthless rival Turner (who naturally picks the alias “Heather”), Jackson doing his Nick Fury on neutral, and Jessica Alba as a vengeful arms dealer, that makes this movie charming in spite of itself. Also Steve-O (yeah that Jackass) stops by for no apparent reason, and actually scores some decent laughs. Then Topher Grace has a rando cameo wearing the world’s most ludicrous fake mustache because why not? It’s bizarre bits like that that keep Barely Lethal, not just bearable, but bubbly.
Basically, Barely Lethal is nowhere near the level of the movies it aspires to be. It lacks the zeitgeist defining lingo and style of Clueless, the relatable heroines of John Hughes, and the classic catchphrases of Mean Girls and Heathers. (Though “sketchier than a 2AM waffle house” may go in my insult rotation.) Yet you got to admire the moxy of this espionage thriller/teen comedy. Like it’s heroine, it’s well-intentioned, clueless, and a bit of a mess. But still pretty cool.
Plus it has Turner kicking all the ass I crave so much she would on Game of Thrones.
Barely Lethal is now in theaters.
Kristy Puchko may add Sansa roundhouse kicking her enemies into her head canon. Yup. Locked in.