Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The high school genre has increasingly worn its welcome in film, with many modern entries attempting to both subvert and pay respect to the tropes of the genre. Unfortunately, Barely Lethal does much of the same, aiming to take down the familiarity of the genre by infusing it with espionage and action but never establishes its own identity. There’s an eclectic cast here, led by Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba, Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner, and up-and-comer Thomas Mann, who stars in June’s fantastic Sundance hit Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Either that sounds like the cast of the weirdest romantic comedy ever made, or the least menacing group of action stars ever assembled. Suffice to say it’s a mixture of both, as the film focuses on a group of kick-ass teenage girls who have been trained since their childhood in the arts of fighting. When thrown into a high school setting, the film should prove ripe for riffs, where it admittedly hits the mark on a few stellar scenes. Most of the film is flat, though, despite the promise behind the screen from director Kyle Newman.
The film focuses on Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage special ops agent who was raised without parents under the guidance of her operations mentor, Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). When she is handed a mission involving Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), a hard-nosed assassin who always seems to evade their special ops unit, Megan is presumably killed in the line of battle after she falls hundreds of feet from a suspended rope into a body of water. She fakes her death, however, in order to live a real teenage life. She discovers how the media represents teenage culture through watching films like Mean Girls, Clueless, and Bring It On, while reading magazines like Cosmopolitan. She poses as a foreign exchange student and enters the Larson family, headed by an understanding mom (Rachael Harris) and another teenager, Liz (Dove Cameron). Megan crushes on a boy at school, Cash (Toby Sebastian), who leads a popular band, while befriending a timid boy named Roger (Thomas Mann), who clearly crushes on her despite remaining friends. Megan must combat her past coming back to her, particularly as a fellow agent, Heather (Sophie Turner), discovers her undercover.
A few scenes pop when the script advances into some delightfully subversive territory. One of the best scenes in the film involves a gossip session between Megan and Liz that follows the “traditional” teenage girl conversation about losing your virginity, only that it’s about Megan waiting for the right person to be her first kill. It mostly works, but would spring even more if it stood alongside similar scenes in the film. Most of the story’s structure, though, despite feeling like something original, is actually the clichéd high school story infused with little moments that tell you this is an espionage thriller. The same formulated emotions occur, the familiar loud arguments happen, and the characters end up in the same situations that they always do. The performance from Steinfeld in the lead is quite good, and Mann is simply phenomenal. He’s such a talent, and his work in June’s Dying Girl is equally sublime. The film surrounding their performances, even with Jackson and Alba committing to their contrived roles, is simply unexciting and too familiar. Newman needs to take chances as a director, because his voice is apparent behind the camera. He just needs to work with more exciting and adventurous ideas.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)