Film Review – Barely Lethal
So completely average in every way, Barely Lethal tries for so little and hits that mark the whole way through. The high school movie has tried so many ways to reinvent itself, striving to add some new level to the experience to make the fish out of water story work in ways we haven’t seen a million times before. Barely Lethal‘s attempt is to make protagonist Megan (Hailee Steinfeld), trained from birth with several other orphan girls to be an assassin, escape from her teacher Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) so she can go and live a normal life. Beyond that are all the same high school clichés we know and are tired of.
What was obvious from the get-go was how obvious everything was. Tonally we are going comedic, of course, but really there isn’t much to laugh at. Megan’s mistakes in fitting in are really the only comedic arc the film works with, yet it never does anything to really try something new. Her odd moments are never so dire to make it that embarrassing for her. Because what she knows and what she doesn’t know is never well-defined. She dresses weirdly one day but then is fine. She sometimes uses her fighting skills, which ironically no one seems to think are that weird or just think are cool. She uses other high school movies as her guide for how to act and what to avoid, which could have been fun but it doesn’t end up changing the tropes enough to make it interesting. I will give them one joke that works when Megan and her torturer have a nice back and forth that finally played off the ridiculousness of combining the motif of being a secret agent with having teenage issues. Beyond that I think I laughed one other time during the entire movie.
The closest thing to a real problems she has (beside the assassin thing) is she doesn’t get along with her host family’s daughter, Liz (Dove Cameron) who is rebelling and doesn’t trust Megan. Other than that she never seems to have any serious conflicts for being different. Even when her secret becomes more known no one reacts with any level of worry or challenges her. That’s probably because we are too busy giving her the same situations we are used to seeing in these films. For example, Megan on her first day meets two guys: Roger (Thomas Mann) the nice guy from the AV club who she makes bad puns with, and Cash (Toby Sebastian) who is in a band. Hmmmm, who will she end up with? If that isn’t boring enough, we are given a really poor attempt at a back story for Roger about his dad being overly cautious with him but it is more annoying than any real stifling of Roger as a pun maker, I mean character.
Her Academy life of course comes back to ruin things for Megan, including a fellow agent Heather (Sophie Turner) who she has a rivalry with and Victoria (Jessica Alba), a mercenary out for revenge. Both story lines go exactly where you think they will go with little to make them exciting. Sophie Turner conveys bitterness and anger nicely enough but really that is all she has, which never makes her more interesting as an antagonist. Yet compared to Jessica Alba she is Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Jessica Alba cannot do threatening at all. She fails at being snarky and she can’t even make herself convincing as a fighter! Even in a comedy the villain should have attitude or a dark comedic personality, something to make them intriguing. Instead we get her saying her lines with no emotion and little to no reaction to anything around her. They could have cast the part with a blond mannequin and there would have been the same result.
Hailee Steinfeld is fine as a twenty-something playing a teenager. She can be awkwardly cute and has a decent camaraderie with Liz and Roger. But she has a hard time selling herself as any kind of fighter with deep issues. We see the stunt moves and they are adequate, nothing exciting enough that fighting defines her or acts as any kind of weight or problem she is struggling with. It seems more like she is mildly sheltered from the world and needs a bit of a refresher to remember how the world works. She doesn’t stand out in any real way but she is nice enough. You kind of root for her even if she never really has any problems.
I expected little from this and it delivered. With this kind of film you know it isn’t going for great art but it should at least try to do something to make it stand out. 21 Jump Street didn’t change the high school model but it did play around with expectations to make it a different experience. This film is exactly what you think you will get. Director Kyle Newman gives you all the clichés of high school and action movies wrapped in one film hoping it will be enough to keep you interested. Surprise….it won’t.