Teen suicide and its effects on those left behind are the most serious of subjects, yet movies haven’t always played them as tragedy. Films like Heathers and Harold And Maude flirted with the notion in the name of comedy, and Dear Evan Hansen even set it to music. Jane, Sabrina Jaglom’s feature directing debut, uses the topic as the springboard for a psychological thriller, one that fails to be very psychological or thrilling. Riverdale’s Madelaine Petsch stars as Olivia, an ambitious high schooler who smites her enemies by anonymously taking over the social media account of her friend who died by suicide. But Jaglom doesn’t ratchet up enough tension for Jane to work as a nail-biter and once the catfight in the pool begins, the film forfeits all claims of being any sort of exploration of trauma. So we’re left with a slow burn thriller where complicated YA issues and vengeful social media posts make for a less than potent mix.
Adolescence is a confusing time when every unrequited crush, Instagram unfollow and classmate quarrel becomes the most cataclysmic event in a teen’s life, and all kids struggle to navigate, and put into perspective, these obstacles. Jane is meant to dramatize this idea, then add social media as an accelerant to create a worst-case scenario look at a young woman cracking under extreme stress. Jaglom immediately stacks the deck against Olivia, a control-freak student at the Greenwood School for Girls. Her BFF Jane (Chloe Yu) recently committed suicide, which causes a rift between Olivia and her other BFF, Izzy (Chlöe Bailey from Grown-ish). Plus, her longstanding dream of attending Stanford University is jeopardized after they defer her application.
What ultimately punches Olivia’s ticket to the dark side is the appearance of Camille (Nina Bloomgarden), a transfer student who threatens her top spot on the debate team. When Olivia and Izzy uncover the scandal that forced Camille out of her previous school, they hijack Jane’s social media account to send taunting messages that’ll “mess with her head.” With mission accomplished, the duo begins using Jane’s page to anonymously humiliate any classmate they don’t like. Before long, Izzy begins to question whether they’re going too far. Olivia, starting to unravel, forges ahead, haunted by visions of Jane that suggest she’s suffering from a low budget version of the same dissociative identity disorder that bedeviled Edward Norton in Fight Club.
As thrilling as Jane may fancy itself, it actually suffers from a lack of style and nerve. Instead of pouring nightmare fuel on teen concerns like cyberbullying, co-writers Jaglom and Rishi Rajani treat them with no more punch than on a soapy drama like Pretty Little Liars. Watching Olivia pound a bathroom mirror until it cracks does not make Jane an illuminating tale about the pressure teens face to succeed, especially since Olivia has no one to articulate her problems to, including her thinly drawn parents. As Olivia and Izzy’s pranks become increasingly dangerous, there’s also little credibility to the school’s investigation—even The Naked Gun’s Frank Drebin could have solved the climactic, clunky staged crime where Olivia crosses the point of no return. The surprise ending that results smacks of not wanting its target audience to feel lectured, although it allows Jaglom to finally deliver the diabolical thriller she thinks she’s been making all along.
Such underachieving is all the more perplexing as Jaglom’s father is Henry Jaglom, whose often-improvised, shaggy dog films, insufferable as they can sometimes be, are infused with the stuff of real life. What feels real in Jane is the chemistry between Petsch, carrying the film with ease and still quite credible as a teenager, and Bailey. They ably remind us that there’s no bond stronger, or more fragile, than that of two high school girlfriends. Elsewhere on campus, Kerri Medders is saddled with the odd role of a conceited teen actress who seems to function primarily as Jaglom’s inside Hollywood joke. And as a concerned school administrator, Oscar winner Melissa Leo dutifully plays the one note she’s given.
Considering the notable fact that Jane features two female leads and was directed, co-written, shot, scored and edited by women, such averageness is disappointing. Films like Cruel Intentions or Tragedy Girls might play to the back row but they make their points with a guile and potency that Jane is not accomplished enough to muster. At one point, Olivia’s easygoing debate teacher (Ian Owens, good job) says that using a dead girl’s social media account to torment people is “a whole ’nother level of messed up.” What’s messed up is making a film about teen suicide, mental illness and cyberbullying and then not having a good enough A-game to justify it.