Heathers, High School, and Saved By the Bell

This is pt. 1 of a 3-part overview. For pt. 2 ("What a Waste! Oh the Humanity!") please click here. For pt. 3 ("A Writer Finds Her Voice") please click here.

Before we get to today's program:


let's contextualize things with these words from Chuck Klosterman on the show Saved By the Bell:

"I would watch SBTB the same way all high school kids watch morning television, which is to say I stared at it with the same thoughtless intensity I displayed when watching the dryer. I watched it because it was on TV, which is generally the driving force behind why most people watch any program. However, I became a more serious SBTB student when I got to college. I suspect this kind of awakening was not uncommon, as universities always spawn little cultures of terrible TV appreciation."

In my own case, he's certainly correct, here. Although I started watching Beverly Hills, 90210 when it originally aired (with the same sort of thoughtless intensity he describes,) it was at college - specifically, weekly parties at the fraternity house that centered around 90210 and Melrose Place. And libations, of course - that the madness really took hold.

He continues: "We liked the 'process' of watching these shows. The idea of these programs being entertaining never seemed central to anything, which remains the most fascinating aspect of all televised art: consumers don't demand it to be good. It just needs to be watchable. * And the reason that designation can be applied to Saved by the Bell has a lot to do with the fundamental truth of its staggering unreality."

* This has changed somewhat since these words were originally written, thanks mainly to HBO shows and things like Breaking Bad and BSG. But I'd say it's still by and large true.

Its staggering unreality is the phrase to recall when we get to Heathers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"Every other kid at Bayside" - where the SBTB kids went to school, a place where students made money by selling a "Girls of Bayside" calendar, where oil was discovered under the football team's goalposts, and where Zack, the main character (like I need to tell you any of this) had the ability to stop time in order to narrate what was happening - "was either a nerd, a jock, a randomly hot chick, or completely nondescript. It was sort of like Rydell High in Grease."

Such a creepy picture out of context. Maybe even in context.

"On the surface, SBTB must undoubtedly seem like everything one would expect from a dreadful show directed at children, which is what it was. But that's not how it was consumed by its audience. There was a stunning recalibration of the classic "suspension of disbelief vs. aesthetic distance" relationship. (...) Understanding SBTB meant you understood what was supposed to define the ultra-simplistic, hyper-stereotypical high school experience - and understanding that formula meant you realized was (supposedly) important about growing up. (And) important things are always cliche." 

"SBTB wasn't ironic in the contemporary sense (i.e. detached and sardonic) and it wasn't ironic in the literal sense (the intentions and themes of the story never contradicted what they stated ostensibly.) You never learned anything, and you weren't supposed to."

I've got a few more Klosterman quotes to go over, but let me break in here to say that all of what he's describing does not 100% apply to Heathers per se - I'd argue there are things to learn, all the better in that they are not bullet-pointed for the viewer- but such is the context of the teenage-drama landscape in which Heathers appeared.

By 1988, the template was firmly established. And still is, more or less. When great high school movies of the 80s are mentioned, you usually hear The Breakfast Club (or Fast Times at Ridgmont High) and Heathers is the anti-Breakfast Club in many ways, as Pauline Kael pointed out in her review of it. It has more in common with Buffy the Vampire Slayer than it does with Saved By the Bell, to be sure.(Right down to its snap, crackle, and pop dialogue. The folks at Sunnydale sound an awful lot like the folks at Westerberg in the way they speak to one another.)

Quick aside: I'd never looked up any reviews of this movie until gathering steam for this blog. And as I did so, I bookmarked The New Cult Canon's and Janet Maslin's at the New York Times. Great stuff. I was obsessed with this movie in 1990 and 1991. I was very lucky for it to be a new movie, accruing cult status via video rentals and pay per view, while I was the exact age of its characters. But it was the pre-internet-age, and looking up such reviews wasn't even on my mind. I also can't claim to have understood the film in any organized fashion at the time; I was pretty much an idiot in the late 80s and early 90s. By the mid-90s, I was perhaps an imbecile, and I flatter myself to think I've achieved moron status here in our exciting new century. (Patience, McMolo, keep climbing the ladder...) But, at the time, I just knew I related to it, powerfully, and couldn't stop watching it. 

Anyway. Let's wrap up Klosterman's SBTB thoughts:

"Conscious attempts at reality don't work. The character of Angela on ABC's short-lived drama My So-Called Life was byzantine and unpredicatble and emotionally complex, and that all that well-crafted nuance made her seem like an individual. But Angela was so much an individual that she wasn't like anyone but herself; she didn't reflect any archetypes. She was real enough to be interesting, but too real to be important. Kelly Kapowski was never real, so she ended up being a little like everybody (or at least like someone everybody used to know.) It was openly ridiculous but latently plausible. And that's why it illustrated a greater paradox that matters more: Saved by the Bell wasn't real, but neither is most of reality."

That last bit there describes Heathers (and life) so perfectly. It certainly has an absurd plot that is just plausible enough (more than plausible, as we know all too well from real-world events in the 25 years since its release) and wildly exaggerated characters that remain all-too-familiar (and who interestingly resemble both the Kelly Kapowski and Angela from My So-Called Life approaches, described above: individually nuanced but swimming in broad strokes.) But it somehow captures a universally accessible essence of high school that more realistic or serious-minded attempts never do.

The only other film like it (for me) is Disturbing Behavior, which I'm sure I'll watch and screencap and geek out on at some point down the road, so I'll just namecheck it for now.

All of which is to say, though I've never met anyone who can point to Heathers and say "yep, that happened to me," I've never met anyone who doesn't instantly recognize the landscape and everyone in it. It presents a version of reality that feels far more real than the actual lived experience of high school.

I mentioned Mean Girls, before...

Undoubtedly a great film. But a whole different era. It is the Old School to Heathers's Animal House. If that makes any sense. 

Perhaps Mean Girls is to Cruel Intentions what Old School is to Animal House? Perhaps Heathers stands apart from them all. Not above or beyond, just apart. Ferris Bueller's Day Off, for example, stands equally apart; whole different criteria.

At any rate, then or now (or before it) Heathers is my nomination for perfect high school movie. Beautifully shot, written, performed, scored, conceived and executed.

This raises an interesting question: whose film is it, exactly? To whom do we give the honors?

I never feel too bad for anyone that stays consistently employed in the movie industry, as Michael Lehmann certainly has done, but it's clear from his c.v. that he wasn't pursuing any kind of personal vision with Heathers. And that's fine - perhaps it was a workmanlike guy at the helm that allowed the eccentricities of the script to bloom.

So maybe it was the writer?

But his c.v. falls apart even more immediately and comprehensively than the director's. So here we have a movie written and directed by folks who sure don't seem like the auteurs one would expect would have put it together. Who was it, then? The production designer? There's a lot of good-looking films in John Hutman's filmography, but no throughline sensibility (that I can see) that suggests Heathers is as cool as it is because of his unique vision.

Though it certainly is a beautiful looking and thoughtfully arranged film.
"Tomorrow someone else will move into her place...

The music is certainly "totally very." David Newman's c.v includes Galaxy Quest, Serenity, and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. And while that's good enough for me personally to refer to it going forward as David Newman's Heathers, it probably wouldn't hold up in court. The score more than anything, though, brings me painfully back to the era. High school wasn't exactly hell for me, but adolescent anxiety is traumatic for anybody. It lives on in the musical accompaniment for this film for me; just hearing it makes me wonder if I'll ever get laid or graduate.

So we're forced to give credit to an ensemble group behind the scenes and the actors on the screen itself. And the two leads are arguably at the height of their youthful appeal in this movie. I speak of course of Christian Slater as J.D. and Winona Ryder as Veronica.


Christian Slater went from this to iconic roles in Pump Up the Volume and True Romance, but his star faded somewhat after that. As with Michael Lehmann, this isn't meant in a negative spirit; only a fool would feel bad for a guy who's consistently employed for decades in Hollywood. And is pals with Anthony Hopkins to boot.

Perhaps his turn in Lars Von Trier's upcoming Nymphomaniac will reinvigorate his status. I doubt it, but we'll see.

Winona Ryder created and sustained a "Winona Ryder" archetype throughout the 90s and while her star power has waned a bit in the 21st century, she's still Hollywood glamour, to be sure. 

I thought she was pretty good in A Scanner Darkly and Black Swan.

She plays Spock's Mom in the new Star Trek. Her character didn't last long, but there's always the possibility of flashbacks/ alternate realities.

Next time around, we'll get into the movie itself, but I wanted to start things off with all of the above. Let's wrap this up with this bit from the Scott Tobias review afore-linked:

"Coming at the end of the ’80s, Heathers still stands out for questioning the prevailing stereotypes of teen movies rather than accepting them as a given. Two decades later, the Hughes model of teen comedy/dramas is still pervasive, but the goings-on at Westerburg High have only gained in potency, perhaps because so few movies have had the courage (or the approval) to follow Heathers’ lead. “It’s not very subtle,” as J.D. says, “but neither is blowing up a whole school.” "

See you next time.


  1. I've only seen "Heathers" once, and remember nothing about it except that I liked it. And that that one dude loved his dead gay son. I should check it out again at some point, if only so as to be able to weigh in on the authorship angle.

    As for "Saved by the Bell," I may be one of the only Americans in my age group who has never seen a single episode of that show. Bits and pieces, sure; enough to know that it . . . is not for me. I'll stick with "My So-Called Life."

    A superior choice is available, however: "Freaks and Geeks," which is never worse than good and at its best is stunning.

    And as time passes, the more I think that "Donnie Darko" might be my favorite high school movie.

    The various Klosterman quotes have me flummoxed. I don't know whether I think he is completely full of shit, or whether I want to track down and read everything he's ever written. I guess both things could theoretically be true...

    1. I either came too late to the Freaks and Geeks party or made my initial incursions with the wrong episodes. It comes highly recommended, though, so I assume it's the latter.

      Donnie Darko is an interesting choice for high school movie. A brilliant film - just hadn't considered it as an entry in the genre. I mean, it certainly takes place in high school, of course, just not sure where I'd place it.

      Klosterman can be exasperating. I've enjoyed what I've read, for the most part (Fargo Rock City and Sex Drugs And Cocoa Puffs) but there are bits of the latter that flummoxed me, as well.


    1. You know your high school movies! I haven't heard of Project A-ko or Pasasyte pt. 1. Any good?