We are in dire need of good high school films. It’s been a long while since the American Pie’s of yore (well, maybe just the first one) and the Bring it On’s (OK, again, just the first one), with the sole recent contender, and current champion, being the 21 Jump Street franchise. Here comes Barely Lethal, a film that has a ridiculous premise, and thankfully does not take itself too seriously, to try and give a new spin to the “girl surviving through high school” storyline.
Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfield) is the top recruit at Prescott Academy, an agency that takes orphan little girls and turns them into trained assassins, because, as the movie explains, no one suspects an innocent girl. The leader at the agency and “father” to these girls is Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson), who sends her best agent, 83, on a dangerous mission to capture an arms dealer called Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba). The mission doesn’t go as planned, and thus, 83 takes the opportunity to fake her own death and finally experience what it feels like to be a normal teenager, changing her name to Megan Walsh and enrolling as an exchange student in a random school in the US (she pretends to be Canadian). Will she be able to go through the perils of High School before her past comes back knocking on her door?
Thus the film goes through the usual high school clichés, with a hint of action here and there, to sustain the fact that this is also meant to be an action film. Megan has a crush on the popular kid, she gets bullied by the popular girls, etc. But cracks begin to rise due to a very inconsistent tone, as the film can’t decide if it’s a playful comedy or a raunchy one. There’s a lot of venereal disease comedy, and various sexual innuendos, that seem out of place for a film whose target audience should be the high school crowd. However, some of the film is so endearingly, well, pink and cute, that it just doesn’t play very well in the end.
Another gripe is on the action front: there’s just not enough of it. For a film about trained assassins, there’s not enough, well, assassinations. There’s none actually. Not that there should be, but it just proves the point that the movie can’t commit to a genre.
Directed by Kyle Newman, it’s a film that doesn’t try too hard, and it will certainly be entertaining for the teen crowds and Steinfeld fans. But Steinfeld can do better than this, as evidenced by the (less forgettable, yet still forgettable) Pitch Perfect 2. Jessica Alba has no clue what she is doing as a super criminal, and only Samuel L. Jackson gets the pass because he is just utterly ridiculous in this film, and he’s great at being utterly ridiculous.
We are left with a film with some neat ideas and one or two good jokes, but this one should have spent an extra year in either Prescott Academy or at high school. As it is, it still has a lot to learn.
Barely Lethal comes out in UK cinemas and On Demand on August 28th