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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 14, 1989


Michael Lehmann
Winona Ryder;
Christian Slater;
Kim Walker;
Shannen Doherty;
Lisanne Falk
language and subject matter

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"Heathers" is not pretty in pink, all pompoms and puppy love, but bodacious in black, chalkboard noir, the dark side of the wonder years. A cracked satire of the teen genre, it's slangy, raunchy and gutsy as a prom date with Carrie.

Caught somewhere between the numbing amorality of "River's Edge" and the heartfelt sap of John Hughes, "Heathers" chides the pursuit of popularity as it tackles the thornier topic of teen-age suicide. More than just one of the best movies so far this year, it is a revolution in young-adult entertainment.

These teens aren't boy-crazy, giggly or mall-fixated. They are political animals, and in the heroine's case especially, their characters are fresh and full-bodied. Winona Ryder, Hollywood's most impressive inge'nue, is the focus as Veronica, the fourth most popular girl at Westerberg High in Sherwood, Ohio. Though only a junior, she has made it to the top. Shaking off her grade-school-geek pals, she has become a member of the Heathers -- an exclusive clique named for its founders -- Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) and Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk).

"Heathers" is the rare teen movie that looks at high school feudalism from an insider's lofty perspective. There's no easy-to-love underdog looking to get in, but rather this stunning quartet for whom dweebs are doormats. To maintain their power, the Heathers wipe their feet on the fat and the unfashionable.

When Veronica questions their cruelty, Heather Chandler explains that popularity is not for weaklings. "Real life sucks a loser dry," says the little despot, who rules with an iron fist and a velvet hair ribbon. With perfect accessories and a menacing smile, she might be the evil queen of "Snow White" in a wardrobe from Benetton.

Though Veronica thinks of Heather the First as her best friend, she wishes she were dead. Scribbling furiously in her diary, she confesses her growing ambivalence about her place at Heather's side. Caught in that pimple-pitted purgatory between childhood and maturity, she tentatively starts to carve out an independent personality. Rebelliously she takes up with a transfer student, a socially unacceptable, filthy rich juvenile delinquent.

J.D. (Christian Slater), James Dean by way of Faust, mesmerizes Veronica -- one burning look in the cafeteria leads to a game of strip croquet, which leads to manslaughter. Imagining him a kindred spirit, she tells him her fantasies about Heather. A man of action, he takes it further, becoming a guerrilla in a personal war against the popular.

Kim Walker creates such a delicious vixen in Heather, it's a shame she has to go so soon, but go she must. J.D. "accidentally" kills her when he dares her to drink a kitchen cleaner cocktail. Veronica, a gifted forger, writes a suicide note: "People think just because you're beautiful and popular, life is easy and fun. No one understood that I had feelings too." To Veronica's everlasting astonishment, Heather becomes a media martyr, memorialized in glowing sound bites.

Asked what she will be doing after the funeral, Veronica says, "I dunno. Mourn, maybe watch some TV." For a while she is glad to be rid of Heather, figuring the world will be a better place without her. Alas, Heather the Second, perhaps even nastier, is crowned; the body count climbs and suicide becomes the "in" thing at Westerberg High.

Deadpan reactions to grievous ills are the stuff of black comedy, but the notion that murder-suicide is funny is bound to cause a ruckus. But Daniel Waters, who based the screenplay on a high school newspaper column, means to send up suicide, to strip it of any glamor or nobility. He and debuting director Michael Lehmann haven't quite done that, though they have devised a strangely hilarious morality play.

The buoyancy of tone and raw young colors contrast with the heroine's deepening guilt and growing wisdom. And in the end, she must break with her lover and mete out justice like one of Charlie Bronson's angels. "You're not a rebel. You're a psycho," she says. "You say tomato and I say tomahto," he says. And love is snuffed like a spat-on match.

J.D. is one nasty hombre. Then again, maybe Ryder just got sick of Slater's impersonation of Jack Nicholson. In his first time out as a villain, he bankrupts his role with this son-of-"Shining" shtick. Ryder, on the other hand, makes us love her teen-age murderess, a bright, funny girl with a little Bonnie Parker in her. She is the most likable, best-drawn young adult protagonist since the sexual innocent of "Gregory's Girl."

"Heathers" is about the loss of a deeper innocence, an internal passage made without the aid of oblivious parents, idiotic faculty or babbling ministers. Veronica defines innocence and guilt in her own way, rejecting Valley Girl values for Rambo's. For all the talk of suicide, the moral of the story is one of America's best loved: All people are created equal -- even the nerds.

"Heathers" is rated R for language and subject matter.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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