D: Kyle Newman / 96m
Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Sophie Turner, Jessica Alba, Dove Cameron, Toby Sebastian, Thomas Mann, Rachael Harris, Jaime King, Dan Fogler, Steve-O, Gabriel Basso, Rob Huebel, Jason Ian Drucker
Sixteen year old Agent 83 (Steinfeld) works for a top secret organisation called Prescott that adopts orphaned girls and trains them to be assassins. But she yearns for a more ordinary, regular life, glimpses of which she gets when on her missions. When a plan to capture wanted terrorist Victoria Knox (Alba) leaves Agent 83 missing presumed dead, she takes the opportunity to live a normal life. She changes her name to Megan Walsh, invents a back story for herself and enrols herself in a foreign student exchange programme that sees her living with the Larsons – mum (Harris), daughter Liz (Cameron), and son Parker (Drucker) – and attending high school.
Fitting in, though, proves harder than she’d imagined. Despite doing her research, Megan finds average life more demanding, and confusing, than anything she’s encountered before. With Liz wanting nothing to do with her, and her faux-Canadian background doing her no favours, it’s not until the intervention of high school heart-throb and teen singing sensation Cash Fenton (Sebastian) that Megan begins to be accepted. Megan develops an immediate crush on Cash, but she already has an admirer in tech-geek Roger Marcus (Mann). Having been tricked into applying for the role of football team mascot – and getting it – Megan gains true acceptance when she takes out three would-be kidnappers of the team mascot, a traditional prank foiled by Megan’s “special set of skills”.
The resulting video goes viral and leads to her being found by her instructor at Prescott, Hardman (Jackson). Along with fellow Prescott agent Pedro (Steve-O), Hardman interrogates Megan, believing she’s working for someone else. But when it becomes clear she just wants to lead a normal life, Hardman tells her she only has time to wrap things up before coming back to Prescott. Later, at a party where she’s looking forward to hooking up with Cash, she finds Agent 84 (Turner), aka Heather, in attendance. Annoyed that Hardman would use Heather to keep an eye on her, Megan is further annoyed when Heather makes a play for Cash.
Another meeting with Hardman reveals that Knox has escaped and will no doubt be looking to catch up with Megan and kill her. Despite his offer of protection if she comes back to Prescott, Megan refuses to leave her new home, and begins to take steps to ensure that the Larsons remain safe. And at the upcoming Homecoming dance, she hopes to finally land Cash as her boyfriend, though she has begun to have conflicting feelings for Roger. With all this going on, Megan has to fall back on her training in order to get through it all, and maintain her new lifestyle.
The idea of a teen assassin dealing with the pitfalls of high school is one that could have given new meaning to the phrase “mean girls”, but here it’s the starting point for an extremely lightweight, by-the-numbers movie that is pleasantly assembled, but astoundingly hollow at the same time. By bringing in such a talented cast, Barely Lethal (not the best pun for a movie, either), may give the interested viewer the impression that the movie is going to be better than it actually is. But in the hands of director Newman (whose previous feature, Fanboys (2009), was a surprise pleasure) and writer John D’Arco, the movie is one that struggles to maintain an even tone, and squanders many of its chances to layer its basic premise with appropriate levels of irony.
The movie makes no effort to avoid or subvert the standard tropes of high school movies, and instead embraces them wholeheartedly without doing anything new with them. This leaves the movie looking and feeling like any other generic high school movie and even the introduction of Megan and her special skill set doesn’t hamper or redefine it. This level of familiarity works against the movie and though Steinfeld et al. waltz through it all with confidence, for them it must have been like the acting equivalent of treading water. Even Jackson and Alba can’t do much with characters that scream “simple movie stereotype”. With every character and situation proving lacklustre as a result, the movie never really manages to take off and become as enjoyable as it should be.
The humour in the movie is also quite forced, from the youngest Prescott recruits being called “grandma” when their driving skills don’t come up to scratch, to Megan’s first day outfit, to creepy teacher Mr Drumm (Fogler) and his stalking of Cash, to Roger’s even creepier father (Huebel) whose conversation is almost entirely inappropriate – none of it is as funny as it probably seemed at the time of filming, and even with the best efforts of the cast. Newman’s direction doesn’t help either, as each development in the script is allowed to play out with little emphasis on the drama involved, or what reaction it provokes in the characters, and the humour doesn’t leaven things either.
As the girl who’s more comfortable deciphering weapons schematics than the pitfalls of high school life, Steinfeld is an engaging presence but settles for doing just enough to satisfy the demands of the script. The same is true of Turner, who pouts her way through the movie as Megan’s chief rival, and Alba, playing an impression of a caricature of a stereotype as the villainous Knox. Mann emerges relatively unscathed by the experience, and Jackson is predictably hard-nosed (but with a heart of gold), but by and large the performances are as blandly likeable as the material. And the whole thing is rounded off by the kind of soundtrack selections that attempt to mirror the on screen action for emotion but lack any real nuance.
Rating: 4/10 – a missed opportunity, Barely Lethal is so humdrum it should be called Barely Lethargic; with a lack of flair behind the camera allied to a below-par script, the movie sinks under the weight of its own low expectations and despite an opening sequence that passes muster, never amounts to much more than being acceptable.