With its inclusion of sassy slanguage and its indictment of progressive culture, Do Revenge is a movie for the modern era—but it plays like a love letter to the savage and sweet teen-themed movies of the 1980s, ’90s and early ’00s—influential cornerstones like Heathers, Clueless, Jawbreaker, Cruel Intentions and Mean Girls. Director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson puts just enough spin on the tradition while displaying a reverence for its cinematic forbears, forming a uniquely barbed feature centered on two sharp-minded high school seniors who team up to exact revenge on their tormentors. And while there are major missteps, overall its bright, spirited attitude and attractive, propulsive gusto power a delightfully wicked journey.
Drea (Camila Mendes) is Rosehill Private School’s impeccably styled alpha queen, dating the school’s golden boy Max (Austin Abrams) and running with wealthy elite besties like Tara (Alisha Boe), Meghan (Paris Berelc) and Montana (Maia Reficco). She also works overtime to disguise the fact she’s on scholarship, shops at thrift stores for her fashions and lives in a modest house on the other side of town. The scrappy, social climbing 17-year-old has carefully curated her world, making sure she’s done everything right, especially to secure a spot at her dream university, Yale. But just when she’s reaching the pinnacle of her powers, tragedy strikes when her private sext video to Max is leaked to the entire school, ruining everything from her romance to her friendships.
After a punch lands Drea, and not the perpetrator Max, in the office of the headmaster (a cameo that will elicit pure joy for teen-movie fans), Drea promises she won’t retaliate further against her slimy ex-beau in order to protect her future. However, the duplicitous, conniving senior has a sneaky plan, joining forces with new transfer student Eleanor (Maya Hawke). The mousy beta finds common ground with Drea’s predicament after becoming the recipient of unfair social scorn at the hands of a ruthless bully. The dynamic duo then hatch a plot for Eleanor to infiltrate Max’s clique and for Drea to befriend Eleanor’s bully Carissa (Ava Capri), only to expose their oppressors as frauds and get them expelled. Hijinks and hilarity ensue, as do unlikely alliances that threaten their best-laid plans.
Robinson, who deftly wrote and helmed the highly resonant romcom Someone Great, shows a greater maturation in her skill set as a filmmaker, here balancing insight, vision and tonal bandwidth with style and verve. She and editors David S. Clark and Lori Ball focus on character-driven action and mounting comedic shenanigans. Cinematographer Brian Burgoyne and costume designer Alana Morshead’s saturated, uber-feminine color palette of soft pastels and vibrant jewel tones rips pages of look-book inspiration from Jawbreaker, Clueless and Mean Girls. There are even more Clueless references dropped in everywhere, from the dialogue (“I’m kvelling!”) to the production design (a school building named “Horowitz Hall”).
Robinson and co-screenwriter Celeste Ballard also pull much of their acerbic, acidic character aspirations from the touchstones in Mean Girls, Heathers and Cruel Intentions. In one sequence Drea stands amidst the school erupting in chaos a la Regina George. Her cutting wit and narcissistic ego feel reminiscent of Heather Chandler, and her scheming seems inherited from Kathryn Merteuil. And they also borrow Jawbreaker’s plot thread where a meek girl infiltrates the popular squad only to get a bit too carried away.
Yet within all the loving homage, the filmmakers turn these direct pulls into indelible moments of their own. The genre’s prescribed, reductive makeover sequence is tackled with a healthy sense of humor and vigor. Clever newfangled portmanteaus are cheeky, never cloying. The addition of a queer romance is a welcomed update, pushing the genre further into the 21st century. The soundtrack which blends classic and contemporary hits (even utilizing a cover of “Kids In America” by The Muffs) also shines as a reflective statement, connecting the old and the new.
Mendes turns in a pitch-perfect performance, tasked to walk a fine line of being a villainous protagonist we root for. The “unlikeable heroine” in her crafty hands is wholly empathetic and compelling. Hawke playfully explores hidden facets of her character’s plight with tenderness and tenacity. Talia Ryder, playing Eleanor’s love interest Gabbi, is in charming sapphic “teenage dirtbag” mode replete with slacker vibe, vocal fry and unfussy tomboy-ish wardrobe. Sophie Turner, who plays Drea’s snooty frenemy Erica, shows off her comedic chops in an all-too-brief appearance.
Unfortunately, the film does carry over some of the genre’s worst instincts without sufficiently reimagining or updating them. The introduction of a maddening twist at the end of act two, when an inevitable hiccup in Drea and Eleanor’s revenge plot occurs, causes their arcs to take a hit as their predictable conflict isn’t utilized to the best of its abilities. Rather than use this as a pivot point where the protagonists mature from their churlish, misguided rage, proving they can get what they want and become better people in the process, this contrived reveal hijacks the momentum for 20 minutes, testing audience loyalty as it makes one of the heroines irredeemable. There’s a simpler, far less complicated way to get to the finish line—a path that these filmmakers fail to take.
In terms of its supporting ensemble, character construction is also spotty. Tara’s eventual play for redemption, after demonstrating little to no genuine remorse throughout for dropping Drea as a friend, relies on ham-handed screenwriting convenience. The attempt to humanize Max, in the scene where he laments his popularity and yearns for a life with greater meaning and solitude, offers a rare glimpse at his vulnerability that ultimately proves useless as it adds depth to someone who doesn’t deserve it. It doesn’t serve as foreshadowing and barely functions as a hollow platitude about how performative these childish games are. When it comes to Eleanor and Drea’s respective paramours Gabbi and Russ (Rish Shah), closure is treated like an afterthought, relegated to emotionally unearned end credits scenes.
Despite those blights, Robinson and her collaborators infuse Do Revenge with an appropriately clear-eyed view of the futility and stupidity of high school social hierarchies. Though her narrative would be better served by a more streamlined approach, being messy and loving drama ultimately mirrors many the collective teenage experience—thankfully, not everyone’s is as heightened as the characters in this film, but sometimes it can be fun to watch from a distance.