When we’re in high school, we’re told that we can be anything we want. We go through phases like outfit changes, trying on each new attitude, outlook, or personality until one feels right. The potential is limitless, so we’re told. You can be anything you want. With that, there should be a warning attached: just because you can be anything, doesn’t mean you should be everything. That’s a lesson that Barely Legal must have been absent for.
Hailee Steinfeld goes from being in college to entering high school for the first time. Her character, Megan, AKA Agent 83, has been denied this traditional pleasure because she is part of an unconventional school that trains female assassins. Everything comes effortlessly to her, despite the reproach of her stark competitor, Agent 84, AKA Heather (Sophie Turner). Megan has never felt like she fit in, especially when it comes to the rule where she is told to shun all forms of human connections. The only parental figure she has in her life comes in the form of her favorite instructor, Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). Although the dark reality of being raised in a violent environment devoid of emotions has been made light-hearted and comical, Megan takes the first opportunity she can to fake her death and start a new life as a teenager.
After delivering her target, Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), she forges an identity and chooses to stay with a family as an exchange student from Canada. Mellow mother of the family, Mrs. Larson (Rachel Harris), notices nothing wrong with Megan, but the uptight daughter Liz couldn’t care less for her. Megan wants the whole picturesque high school experience, with a boyfriend like Roger (Thomas Mann). Her plans are thwarted when she realizes how ill-prepared her teen magazines and 90’s teenager movies left her for the reality of high school in the 21st century. Things are made worse when Heather shows up, with Knox not too far behind. Good thing Megan is actually a trained killer, or else there might be something to actually be worried about.
Barely Lethal is all the fun of being bullied in school with none of the excitement of hearing Samuel L. Jackson string together a sentence full of swear words. This film is the ultimate high school experience. In high school, you don’t quite know what you want to grow up to be, so you go through different phases until you finally reach the final product. This film juggles through popular film elements, unable to decide whether it wants the mean-spirited humor of Mean Girls, or the dark comedy, super-violence of Kick-Ass, or even the deep, feel-good drama of a John Hughes film. Instead, it finds an unhappy medium with all of those elements, and it still manages to drag along a little of the 90’s teenage rom-com formulaic story lines. There is potential in Barely Lethal if it would stop trying to be a people-pleaser and fully commit to one, maybe two, genres.
The film is all about deception and betrayal, and the biggest one is this B film misusing its A star cast. Most of the characters will have or have already played an iconic comic book character in a film adaption, which would ultimately be to this film’s benefit if it could provide the story or dialogue to bring out the energy each actor had given in their previous characters. The film wants you to know that it is aware of all of the clichés in such high school films; it also wants you to know that even though it is aware, it will still use every single one of them. This move is as bold as it is benign. Ultimately it doesn’t amount to much in the end.
Barely Lethal thinks it has hopes of becoming a comic book film franchise all its own, but even with the borrowed cast from other such films (Avengers, Sin City, and X-Men: Apocalypse) and the rented elements from films past, this only comes off as a shallow parody of an homage to a film. The title itself is a warning reminding you that any more of this film is enough to kill you.
RATING: ★★ (2/10 stars)