Since the 1970s the high school teen drama has been a stalwart of cinema, from The Last Picture Show to Clueless. Mean Girls all the way back to Grease. It's an all encompassing juggernaut of a genre, with comedy, angst, drama and scandal all rolled into one. Perhaps it's because of the pivotal nature of those formative years in which people make the transition from child to adult, or because it's a time period that leaves such an indelible mark on us all as human beings, but for whatever reason it's a subject that seems to hold a universal resonance. However, in recent years, with the proliferation of social media and the pressures that brings, the teenage experience as depicted on screen at least, seems to have become one that is very different and it is in that new fangled digital work that Jane finds it's core themes.
Jane focuses on the lives of Olivia and Izzy, two high school students in their final year before going off to college. The two of them have suffered a tremendous loss as their close friend Jane took her own life over the summer before school resumed. However, as the pressure of attempting to gain entry to an Ivy-League university grows for Olivia, among competition from others in her year, she hatches a plan with Izzy to get even with their peers and teachers using anonymous social media, via Jane's old profile. Naturally, that leads them down a dark and dangerous road with tragic consequences as things spiral out of control.
The notion of revenge is nothing new, and the petulant whims of teenagers is a well-worn trope of these sorts of films. Jane does a great job of updating that for the more modern digital age by using the same plot device Mean Girls does with the “burn book” or Pump Up the Volume did with the anonymous radio broadcast before that. The anonymous, and supposedly righteous voice fighting back but becoming more powerful than ever leading to bad decisions. However, with Jane the waters are muddied somewhat by Olivia seeing visions of Jane at points and the suggestion that Jane is somehow still posting from beyond the grave. There are several instances where Olivia and Izzy confer over posts from the account that neither claims to have made, but this is never given a truly satisfactory resolution with a significant degree of ambiguity.
It goes without saying that a film that focuses on grief, suicide, societal pressure to succeed and general teen angst isn't a total laugh-riot, but the tone of Jane doesn't quite work. It's dark and brooding, but with zero attempts at levity to give the audience a break of any kind, but it often seems as if it's about to kick into a darker, more horror-orientated direction or that there's a big twist on the horizon without ever really delivering.
That said, Madelaine Petsch is excellent as the obsessive, hyper-competitive Olivia. We see her descend into an increasingly manic state as her actions cause situations to spiral out of her control, the one thing she is trying to maintain a grasp on. Likewise Chloe Bailey puts in a compelling shift as Izzy, making her seem believable and grounded even when the writing could have made her unlikeable in the hands of a lesser actor. It does feel as though the other characters are somewhat underdeveloped, with the various victims of the “Jane” profile only really existing as roadblocks for the two main characters without being truly fleshed out. There are hints of a more in-depth story with Olivia's debate teacher, but again this doesn't seem to go anywhere. More egregious though is the lack of character development for Jane herself, there is no explanation for what prompted her to take her own life, nor do we get much of an insight into who she was. Although there is subtext within the dialogue, she remains an enigma for much of the film and some sort of background would have added emotional weight to the bereavement that Izzy and Olivia felt, rather than Jane becoming a plot device. Additionally Melissa Leo appears as the school principal in a role that completely side-lines her, and wastes her tremendous talent. It seems an incredibly odd choice of casting when the role seems to be largely marginalized.
Jane is arguably more a thriller about high school teens than a high school teen movie per se, but it certainly does a good job of bringing that premise into the modern era. The use of social media and tackling the notion of cyberbullying is handled with care and the idea that anonymity can be a frightening prospect for the victims of that abuse is an important message. The film lacks the iconic moments that would make it a cult classic and while it does speak to the pressure on young people to succeed it also fails to really demonstrate an equal share of consequences for everyone involved. Although that may be unsatisfying, in a sense that might make it a more accurate portrayal of the cutthroat nature of university admissions in the US than many films that deal with similar issues. Visually it has plenty to offer, with some beautiful cinematography at points, and although it's not the cheeriest film, it's gripping throughout and offers an alternative view of the modern high school experience even if it's a more intense, somewhat dour perspective.
Jane is released via 101 Films on 13 February