It’s rare to find a film as plagued by identity issues as Barely Lethal. The title suggests a mash-up of Kick-Ass and Clueless, the sort of movie that might be made by someone brought up on a steady (if odd) diet of Tarantino and Hughes. In execution, though, Barely Lethal turns out to be about as edgy as a Disney Channel Original Movie, from the obligatory encounters with cliques to sweeping declarations of young love.
In of itself, that wouldn’t have to be a problem – director Kyle Newman clearly knows high school comedies well, and his film is perfectly serviceable fare as far as that genre goes. But Barely Lethal tries to be more, and that’s where it falls flat. From lifelessly shot car chases and shoddily staged fistfights to a half-hearted attempt to satirize the very kind of movie it ends up becoming, the film misses many of its targets by a considerable margin.
That’s no fault of lead actress Hailee Steinfeld, who does her damnedest with a far less complex role than the one that put her on the map (Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ 2010 True Grit). As Megan Walsh, a teenage assassin who fakes her own death, shacks up with a host family and enrolls in high school in order to test out the normal life she never got a chance to have, the actress is so relentlessly perky that she charms even when some of the stilted dialogue (from John D’Arco, whose script is the definition of barely passable) is downright painful. She’s probably the best thing that the movie has going for it, pulling off stunts as nimbly as she captures Megan’s initial social awkwardness.
The supporting cast isn’t terrible either. Samuel L. Jackson chews the scenery in the part of Megan’s tough-as-nails handler (thanks to Nick Fury, he can clearly do this stuff in his sleep), Thomas Mann (about to break big in Me & Earl & the Dying Girl) is winning as the A/V nerd crushing on Megan, and Dove Cameron is cute and effective as Megan’s socially conscious new “sister.” In smaller capacities, Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner capitalizes on every barbed moment of ice-queen bitchery playing a rival assassin, while Jessica Alba gets a few fun moments as the big bad.
No, the main stumbling block that Barely Lethal can’t clear is how it has one foot in sweet-toothed teen comedy land and the other in subversive action-thriller territory. On the few occasions it attempts to directly lampoon Hughesian teen drama (a jock seemingly pours his heart out to a girl, only for both to burst out laughing as he’s revealed to just be quoting The Breakfast Club), it doesn’t go far enough, toeing the line of cleverness before retreating backward into the very same conventions it purports to mock. And Newman’s action scenes are all regrettably limp, even betraying amateurish set pieces that take the viewer right out of the movie. There are also some weirdly disturbing moments, like a creepy science teacher who makes sexual advances on a student. Because pedophilia is always hilarious, right gang?
Additionally, Megan’s characterization is itself problematic. A supposedly dangerous weapon raised to take out enemies of her government by a top-secret academy, she briefs herself on high school with classic rom-coms and then uses what she’s learned to swiftly dismiss a table of genuinely friendly cheerleaders as potentially malicious pranksters. But minutes later, she’s convinced by two conniving girls with designs on a crushworthy rocker (Toby Sebastian) that she should become the school mascot in order to win his heart. Megan flip-flops from unflappable operative to gullible teen with neither rhyme nor reason, a scripting error indicative of Barely Lethal‘s two, incompatible brains. The mix it’s going for is clear, but the film is too unbalanced to hold together.
And so, as Megan strengthens her grip on high school, bonds with her sister, gets the guy and (of course) delivers some much-deserved comeuppance to Turner and Alba’s PG-level baddies, Barely Lethal never attempts to diverge from its stock plot and take on any life of its own. Perhaps the movie belongs to a bygone era of teen cinema where young guys and gals actually craved saccharine romantic gestures and clothes montages set to a Joan Jett song (I’m sure you can guess the one). But in a post-Kingsman world, that’s just not enough any more.
For a certain age demographic, Barely Lethal might work as harmless, breezy viewing. Still, there will be no escaping, even to the most inattentive of viewers, that this movie is at war at itself. With an R-rating, it could have committed to making Megan a legitimate badass and giving the violence the edge it needed. With a better fidelity to satire, it could have worked as a delicious send-up of the teen comedy genre, spinning Hit-Girl’s high school adventures out to feature length.
But as it stands, Barely Lethal is a fairly poor shot, widely missing the mark on both counts. And when you consider the ickier connotations of the title, especially given how it all transforms into a female empowerment fantasy starring teen actresses, it’s tough not to wonder whether Newman and D’Arco ever really knew what kind of film they were trying to make. In the end, all they’ve come up with is a pretty bad one.
Not edgy enough to commit to its premise nor witty enough to mine it for laughs, Barely Lethal is really just a Disney Channel Original Movie disguised as something more worthwhile.