I imagine that anytime someone organizes a film festival or an outdoor movie series that they have to look if there have been any recent school shootings or major violent events before deciding they can include Heathers. Because wow, Heathers is RAW and clearly made in a pre-Columbine world. I imagine any studio exec today flipping through Heathers’ script would immediately have it shredded and burned, just to remove any trace of it having even been considered to be made into a movie at that studio to avoid any controversy.
This is a shame, because Heathers is a fantastic, original take on the high school comedy, one that could only have been made in 1989, but still feels just as relevant and fresh today. Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a girl who is part of the most-popular clique in high school who are populated entirely by girls named Heather. While two of the Heathers are nice, the alpha-female Heather is an early-Regina George archetype, nasty, foul and relentless.
But Victoria becomes transfixed by a mysterious, rebellious student named J.D. (played by Christian Slater) who doesn’t wince at the opportunity to scare some jocks off with a gun during lunch break. He fits the makeup of a school shooter without the loner personality, someone who can attract and entrance people while having them look pack his psychotic streak. J.D. suggests to Victoria to get back at the alpha-Heather, leading to her death. Victoria and J.D. mask it as a suicide and snowball into wave of faux-suicides, murders and bomb threats.
The whole thing is a pretty strong satire about media’s obsession with teenage suicide, particularly how we care more about violence afflicted to popular kids than those who lurk in the background quietly without a friend in the world. It also has some biting dialogue too, how these teens think of themselves as adults and carry themselves as such, speaking with clarity and purpose.
But the most illuminating thing about Heathers is its dissection of popularity and social circles, how even though we condemn the notion of groupthink vs. rugged individuality, we can’t help but want to be at the center of the social circle, in a group of exclusivity where others peer on from the edges, wishing they too could be part of the inside. For many, Heathers will strike a familiar chord for discussing the strange notion of not actually liking your friends, and if that’s worse to have friends you don’t like vs. not having any friends at all.
Heathers is smart and hilarious and doesn’t condescend to its characters or its audience. It doesn’t portray Victoria, J.D. or the Heathers as stupid kids just going through that high school phase, but actually treats them as living, thinking, breathing humans whose thoughts and motives are just as legitimate as any so-called adult. Even the greatest of high school comedies like American Pie or Fast Times at Ridgemont High fail at this, coating their stories with a certain nostalgia as if it were targeted to high school alumni rather than actual high school students going through that experience themselves. Heathers, though, feels relevant and accessible to everyone, and that is why it’s a true classic.