Let’s get something out of the way: high school is hell, and if you enjoyed it then you probably made it miserable for those who didn’t. Adult appreciation of the high school film is more complex than mere nostalgia, because it can offer audiences a unique lens through which to view our place within a capitalist world. The American high school acts as a microcosm of our society, with its familiar social structure of the haves (popular kids), the have nots (dorks) and the authorities (teachers). Within this framework few are as lacerating as the 1988 film Heathers, which spares virtually nobody in its critique against social politics of high school. The film is a classic because its deep cynicism serves to highlight the value of sincere kindness.
The film takes the perspective of Veronica (Winona Ryder), an honorary member of the most exclusive clique in Westerberg High, the Heathers, so-named because every other member share the name. Led by the vicious Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), each Heather has their own colour coded outfit, like Power Rangers with ‘80s shoulder pads. Veronica enjoys the social capital afforded by her affiliation with the group, but is repulsed by their cruelty, particularly towards the plus-sized Martha Dunnstock (Carrie Lynn).
Increasingly alienated by the Heathers, Veronica finds herself drawn to the new outcast at school J.D. (Christian Slater), a James Dean-alike who immediately makes his mark, by shooting a couple of jocks named Kurt and Ram with blanks in the school cafeteria. As a Post-Columbine audience, we will sadly be more than aware how grim such a scene is, but in the Reagan world of Heathers, this moment is played for surreal catharsis. There is a sexiness to the way Slater stands up to these caricature bullies, exacting the kind of vengeance we may have secretly longed to do to our own tormentors.
After hooking up, J.D. tricks Veronica into giving Heather Chandler a hangover cure where the secret ingredient is bleach. He convinces Veronica to dress the death up as a suicide. Half-expecting a ‘Ding-Dong the Witch is Dead’ musical number, Veronica is dismayed to find her school deify Heather as a tragic dead girl. The various responses to suicide is when Heathers is at its most cynical. Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), who herself had been bullied by Chandler, chases after every news camera to give an interview about how devastated she is. Similarly, the school newspaper seeks to capitalise on Heather’s death because teen suicide is currently a national issue, complete with a shitty public awareness song.
After J.D. tricks Veronica into killing Kurt and Ram, framing it as a gay suicide pact, she tries to distance herself from the psycho. With Heather Duke taking over Heather Chandler’s position as Queen Bitch, Veronica comes to realise that simply removing bad people does nothing to stop the culture of bullying at Westerberg. The film hints at the wider social implications of this through the way it portrays homophobia. The bodies of Kurt and Ram, themselves virulent homophobes, are discovered by a two boorish cops who say with disgust “Oh man they were fags”. At their funeral (fun fact: the priest in this scene is played by openly gay actor Glenn Shadix), Kurt’s dad famously declares “I love my dead gay son”, to which J.D. snidely remarks “how do you think he’d react to a son who had a limp wrist and a pulse?”. This moment marks a turning point in the film’s moral universe, because Veronica laughs, recognising the truth of J.D.’s words and the hypocrisy of society. But then she stops as Kurt’s little sister turns to see the pair sniggering. The cynical tone of the film clashes with the gravity of its subject matter and forces the audience to gradually distance themselves from the sexy, yet destructive, allure of J.D., coming around to Veronica’s increasingly mature outlook.
Such nuance is evident even earlier in the film. Rather than making Heather Chandler a straight-forward monster, the film hints at a greater complexity in her psychology. During a party scene, we momentarily break away from Veronica’s perspective to see a college student pressure Heather into giving him a blowjob. Later, we see her alone in the bathroom sipping a glass of water before spitting it back out at her reflection in the mirror. This wordless moment is only a few seconds long, but it explodes the way we have seen Heather up to this point. It suggests that her impenetrable cruelty at school is just a suit of armour that she wears to deal with the demands of being a young woman in a misogynistic world.
The cynicism of Heathers, and the way it dismantles its psychologically complicated villains would make it a decent enough cult film. What makes it endure as a classic though is the conclusion. J.D., and his masterplan to blow up the school represents the logical endpoint of his cynicism: destructive nihilism. He is ultimately thwarted by Veronica, who shares his cynicism, but sees another answer to the cruelties of Westerberg High, and by extension, society in general.
In the final scene, after a brief exchange with Heather Duke, enigmatically declaring that “there is a new sheriff in town,” Veronica approaches Martha Dunnstock. She says: “My date for the prom kind of flaked out on me, so I thought if you weren’t doing anything that night we could go to the video store and rent some new releases or something.” Martha, who is then finally able to speak, replies “I’d like that”. The credits begin to roll, and we leave on a final image of Veronica and Martha together in the school corridor. Instead of the usual heteronormative embrace, we see a quiet moment of solidarity between two women.
This conclusion is not a call to hang out with the unpopular kids out of pity. Veronica’s act of kindness is not in the offer, but in giving Martha the opportunity to speak for herself. Throughout the film, Martha is a passive figure; the target of the Heathers’ s prank, and a pawn in J.D.’s scheming. Martha’s attempt at suicide is therefore an attempt at wresting autonomy back from her peers. But in responding to Veronica’s honest, simple request, Martha is able to be in control without having to resort to self-destruction. High school is hell, but it doesn’t always have to be.