Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)

By Evangeline Jennings

So. We decided to call our collection of YA short stories and poetry, Heathers.

Why?

Because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Because we all love the movie. And Winona Ryder.

Because I’m an idiot.

And because we thought it would be a gas to have a character called Heather in each of our twenty four snapshots of adolescent life.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, I still can’t think of a better name. Except maybe Mermaids. That’s mostly a joke.

But if you think about the Winona Ryder movie – and I mean really think about it – its value is very much less than the sum of its parts. Don’t get me wrong, I love it – see above – but the ending is totally sucky and the movie is spiritually bankrupt. Despite its cult reputation and endless punk rock cool points, Heathers means next to nothing and doesn’t even try to say anything important.

Superficially, it’s all about peer pressure, teenage angst, alienation, murder and suicide. There may even be a way to lend it a worthy feminist interpretation. But, in reality, it’s a movie about high school movies which trivializes all the important issues it purports to explore.

I can’t remember where I read it, but someone much smarter than me once wrote – and I’m paraphrasing from memory – that essentially there are two types of teen movie – the “John Hughes” and the “Psycho Slasher” flick. Heathers, that anonymous smarty-pants said, is both. I’m not convinced there are only two teen movie formats, but I’m prepared to believe that however many there were twenty-five years ago when Heathers was first released, it took a decent stab at being all of them.

Not so much a classic high school movie as a movie about how Hollywood looks at high school.

Because that’s what Heathers is – to me, at least – a dark and cynical postmodernist comedy at the expense of everyone else – other film-makers, TV show producers, the pop music industry, and anyone hawking any kind of teenage culture, genuine or faux. Rich kids. Troubled kids. Fat kids. Suicidal/homicidal kids. Aren’t they funny?

It’s a film that says, Hey, look how clever we are. Look how much we know. We know better than you because we are better than you.

From Christian Slater’s endless Jack Nicholson mugging to the opening homage to Full Metal Jacket, Heathers is a meta-movie that uses white suburban teenage angst to show off.

Look how clever we are. Look how much we know.

For example, and obviously I only know because somebody else told me, the two cops who discover the double suicide/murder of Kurt Kelly and Ram Sweeney are called “McCord” and “Milner”, a reference to the lead actors in a seventies buddy cop TV show I’ve never had the misfortune to see.

Self-regarding in the extreme, Heathers wallowed in such media and pop culture humour, while removing real adolescent problems and genuine youth culture to a safe distance from where it could poke exquisite fun at them. And then some. Rather than worry about the picture it painted of a proto-Columbine, Heathers made those kinds of broken children into a joke.

Heather Chandler’s red scrunchy.

The execrable eighties pop pastiche “Teenage Suicide, Don’t Do it.”

All the things that matter are reduced to disposable trash and running in-jokes.

And yet Heathers was also beautifully written and utterly quotable. And Winona Ryder was brilliant and adorable.

I will never be either. But I do naturally drop cultural references into my own writing as private jokes between me and my ideal reader – who is also probably me – and I hope one day to write something as fine as the first hour of the screenplay for Heathers.

I also hope that OUR Heathers has real meaning and worth – content above style and form – and that it doesn’t only entertain, it possibly even helps.

If so, that would be Big Fun.

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