content warning: strong mentions of suicide, sexual assault and eating disorders.
High school is a permanent fixture in modern society that terrorises as much as it allures. Few films have managed to capture the nuances of this microcosmic hellscape with as much layered sincerity as Heathers. Heathers is a descent into the horrifying depths of high school, the culmination of societal archetypes and expectations on trapped, tortured teenagers. It combines some of my favourite tropes in this column: murder, proms, philosophy, and misandry. All the good stuff. With its deep cynicism and tantalising black comedy, the film highlights the persistence of naivety and kindness in adolescence, and how the world will do anything to crush it, especially when the host is a teenage girl.
Media often acts as if empathy exists in a foreign realm to that of the teenage girl. She's a brutalist architect raising havoc and terrorising pop culture with her shoulder pads and jewel-toned mecha suits. The teenage girl in the cultural zeitgeist exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to condemn the Living Teenage Girl. Old, sweaty, and vindictive men bring to the writers’ table every high school crush who rejected them, every long-legged socialist who dared correct their hypocrisy in class. The girl they create is out for blood and doesn't care who gets in her way, doing it all with a Born Sexy Yesterday appeal that ends with her driven to madness for a man. At the intersection of all these tropes emerged Heathers, which serves as a memento to the dangers of unchecked teenage violence.
The film follows Veronica, a clever but socially uninvolved 17-year-old with a knack for forgery and social criticism. The Heathers are a trio of vicious ‘mean girls’ at her high school who take a liking to her once they see her skills. Plagued by body dysmorphia, severe eating disorders, sexual trauma and PTSD, but deeply entrenched in their precarious social roles, the Heathers perpetuate cycles of cruelty just to separate themselves from the ‘losers’. In doing so, they illuminate the fragile class and social borders in our own society that are deeply reliant on forgoing humanity to maintain them, often at the cost of everyone involved. Veronica initially plays the part of The Heather, lured in by the addictive social capital, but having to bully her best friend and social outcast Martha tears her apart. She stays with The Heathers for as long as she can, observing them with morbid curiosity whilst plotting her revenge. It's here, at her most conflicted, that she meets JD.
JD waxes poetry about revolting against everything the Heathers represent and, like a parasite, infects her mind. He is every dark inner thought of an edgy teenager craving vengeance personified, and it’s almost seductive seeing him vocalise the retributive rhetoric we’ve longed to throw against our own tormentors. Veronica and JD trauma bond, hook up, and for a soft moment it feels like a beautiful melding of two progressive worldviews, a tantalising ‘us against the world’. It makes their descent into moral ambiguity all the more compelling, the conflict of two teenagers suddenly thrust into a world where they get to play with life or death.
The next day, when Veronica is running around doing humiliating chores for Heather Chandler as forgiveness for having insulted her the previous night, JD suggests a little prank: putting cleaning liquid into her drink. Veronica, in her delight, grabs the wrong bottle and fills the cup with bleach—a mistake JD notices but does not point out. Heather drinks, coughs a little bit, curses Veronica, and dies. JD, ever the careful misanthrope, tells Veronica that nothing will come of their getting convicted for Heather’s murder. In an eerie scene, he begins drafting a suicide note, filled with Heather’s supposed regrets and inability to deal with the trials of high school life. Veronica, not to be outdone, highlights passages from a nearby Catcher in The Rye. The scene is staged and set. Heather Chandler has officially killed herself.
In a foreshadowing of social media in 2021, the other Heathers give tearful, over-dramatic interviews to the press at the school’s memorial. Heather Chandler, instead of receiving joyful cries at her death, is rebranded as a tragic victim. Veronica girlbossed a little too close to the sun with her beautiful suicide note, and suddenly, ‘mental health’ is back in the academic school plan. Teen trauma is the nation’s next biggest fixation and MTV is hard at work with another hit tribute. Everything is manufactured and everything is ruthlessly capitalised upon.
Without their dictator, the remaining Heathers are at a loss and begin robotically exploring other facets of themselves and high school. In this sense, the film mocks the Heathers and what they stand for whilst exploring the humans behind the facade. They are young women crushed by the demands of a misogynistic and capitalist society where their only source of knowledge and access to power is desirability, and the consequent facade becomes integral to their survival. Their cruelty is horrifying, but we also see them on the receiving end: sexually assaulted, mocked and filled with self-loathing. It's interesting to consider that the monsters we mock in the media are often a product of our own gaze.
Riding the high of their god-like impact on their high-school, JD and Veronica set their sights on two of the school bullies, Kurt and Ram. Veronica lures them to a field with promises of a mind-blowing threesome and cow-tipping. They’re stripped and ready when JD jumps out of hiding and shoots both of them right in the head. The plan had been for JD to scare them with some blank shots, but unsurprisingly, he isn't one to follow rules. The two of them are quickly draft a double-suicide note filled with Wattpad-era homoerotic subtext and run from the scene. The tragic news is announced, and the town holds yet another beautiful memorial.
Suicide is in vogue and the power has gone straight to JD’s head. Veronica, suddenly terrified of what she’s been complicit in creating, ends things with him. He refuses to let her leave, insists that they have a duty to carry out their plans, that they’re the only ones who can fix their society. As the musical aptly phrases, “our love is God,”' and JD is hooked on wielding his divine judgement. So, Veronica, using all of the skills she’s acquired thus far, stages her own suicide fit with paragraph clippings from literary classics and highlighted phrases alongside a heart-wrenching suicide note. Temporarily free from his shackles, she is left to assess the situation she's created. In trying to expel monsters from her high school she's become one herself and enabled new people to come forwards to take the deceased dictators’ places. The stitchwork of societal labels, class positions and hierarchies run so deep that simply knocking out the ringleaders only serves to propel their crueller replacements forward. Heather, Kurt, and Ram become martyrs; their cruelty erased from the community record. JD’s solution? Blow it up.
Veronica runs to school to see the plan JD has been alluding to. In the guise of a census form, JD has tricked the student body into collectively signing a mass suicide note, exploiting the thoughtless conformity of their microcosmic society. He then sets a bomb under the school during one of the busiest sports events of the year and waits. Veronica corners him, begs him to stop and think about what he’s doing, about how this will actually change anything. “Westerberg high school is society.” The illusion is shattered, destroyed once and for all. JD’s seduction crosses the line into destruction, thoughtless indiscriminate murder. Why fix a problem in society when you can just destroy society? Veronica grabs a pipe, knocks JD out and runs. She quickly evacuates the high school, and we watch everything burn behind her as she and Martha exit, side-by-side.
Heathers successfully condemns the groupthink of high school where gossip and rumours quickly become facts and mental health becomes a fad. Veronica’s success comes when she prioritises decency and humanity over destructive ideology and sheds the us vs them mindset. Heathers could have easily been about JD—his retribution, his journey—but it's not. At its core, it's about girlhood conflicts, the cruelty and kindness of the teenage girl. Both Veronica and JD share a cynicism and hatred of the world—but where JD’s solution is mass destruction, Veronica’s is a desperate outreach to her community for connection. There's a reason she's the ultimate success of this film—and arguably, of all the films discussed in this column She succumbs to dark, destructive temptations, wields both blade and shield, hurts and is hurt, but despite everything chooses radical kindness and loyalty over apathetic devastation. For once, the teenage girl is allowed to roam free of oppressive restrictions.