If cinema has taught us anything over the years, it`s that high school is a pretty tough time. Whether you`re a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal, it`s inevitable that you`re going to have to struggle through some zany exploits, pregnancy scares, possible musical numbers and hard-learned life lessons from unexpected mentors before finally getting together with the geeky girl at your senior prom. In his latest film, Barely Lethal, Kyle Newman (Fanboys, The Hollow) shows us that even for a highly trained assassin, surviving high school is no cake-walk.
Hailee Steinfeld, fresh from chirruping her way through Pitch Perfect 2, stars as Megan Walsh, an orphaned youngster enlisted at Prescott`s School for Girls, a secret military training school run by the aptly-named headmaster Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). Here she learns all the skills required to be a world-class assassin, but none of the expertise needed to be a normal teenager. Longing for a regular girly life, Megan fakes her own death whilst on a mission, and enrolls herself in a suburban high school, quickly learning that the perils of normality are almost as deadly as a black-ops assignment.
With an array of archetypal characters, each with their own predictably familiar story arcs, there is nothing particularly original in the high school setting; we`ve walked these halls countless times before, and seen every paradigm played by a hundred different actors over the last few decades. Nevertheless, there is something undoubtedly refreshing in seeing a new cast of unfamiliar faces taking on the roles. Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie, Cloud 9) does a sterling job as the school-bitch-who-inevitably-comes-good-in-the-end, whilst Gabriel Basso (Super 8, The Kings of Summer) plays the Bender character to a tee. It is Thomas Mann (Beautiful Creatures, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) that steals the show, however, as everybody`s favourite geek-who-gets-the-girl.
The espionage storyline acts simply as a MacGuffin to account for Megan`s much-needed awkwardness (as well as to allow her to arrive to prom in a whopping great helicopter), but does enable some cool butt-kicking sequences, and a little more tension than one would usually expect in the fight for the attention of the school heartthrob (a broody Toby Sebastian). It also gives Jessica Alba the opportunity to try (somewhat unsuccessfully) to be a convincing villain, and for Sam Jackson to be Sam Jackson and get paid a fortune for it once again.
Barely Lethal is by no means the next Mean Girls, but it`s certainly a loving tribute to the works of John Hughes and Amy Heckerling. With a witty script, a toe-tapping soundtrack, and a cast of charming characters, it ticks every box in the Idiots` Guide to High School Comedies. Far from being a classic of the genre, Barely Lethal remains a great showcase for the rising stars of this generation.
Dir: Kyle Newman
Scr: John D`Arco
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Jaime King, Jessica Alba
Music: Mateo Messina
Run time: 96mins
Barely Lethal is in cinemas and VOD on 28 August via Signature Entertainment.