A High School Film Mixed With Trained Teenager Assassins = Awkward

Director: KYLE NEWMAN/2015

Hailee Steinfeld (Pitch Perfect 2Ender’s Game) plays Megan Walsh in the new film, with a provocatively nearly-misleading title, Barely Lethal. Megan is not your average teenager.  In fact, she is so un-average that she longs to create a life that is only that of a typical suburban teenager. Megan, who was orphaned early in life, was raised in a secret government institution called The Prescott School for girls.  Given the label Agent 83, she has been raised to be a secret-agent extraordinaire able to dismantle bombs, fight off attackers, and engage in all of the latest high-tech gadgetry that would make James Bond jealous.  Yet this is not enough.

Agent 83 is the class favorite of the head “educator”, Maxwell Hardman who is played by Samuel L. Jackson in a role reminiscent of his Nick Fury in the Marvel films such as The Avengers: Age of Ultron, minus the eye patch.  Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) plays Agent 84, who is always second best in the eyes of their mentor, and who obviously holds much disdain for Agent 83.

The basic premise of the film is that as Agent 83 goes on missions, she secretly longs for the childhood that she has never had.  She begins a crash course in navigating the awkward teenage years by renting a slew of “classic” films such as CluelessMean Girls, and the entire series of 90210. She also mines John Hughes films such as The Breakfast Club, as well as dives into various “teen” magazines to learn about fashion and the like.

The more she dives into her research, the more distant she feels from the work at hand.  When pursuing international arms dealer, Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba-Fantastic Four, Machete), she finds her chance to escape it all by faking her death during her pursuit.  She uses her spy skills to create a new identity as Megan Walsh, a foreign exchange student from Canada, and moves in with Mrs. Larson (Rachael Harris-The Hangover, Diary of Wimpy Kid), who is a single mom raising two kids: Liz (Dove Cameron) and Parker (Jason Ian Drucker).  Parker is a pre-teen self-proclaimed “ninja-in-training”, and Liz is the same age as Megan.

The script from John D’Arco seeks to be both a clever homage and satire of typical teen fare.  There is the typical love triangle involving our protagonist who is attracted to the hot, yet emotionally challenged musician Cash (Toby Sebastian), and the nice, yet nerdy Roger (Thomas Mann). Megan avoids genuinely nice people like the cheerleaders because Mean Girls taught her that such people were merely trying to “lure her in” so as to set her up for a big fall.  The script gets some mileage out of such humor that means to play against type, but on the whole the entire story settles too easily into the typical teen fare.  Much of the story is one big mash up of the aforementioned teen titles, thrown in with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the film, not the TV series, involving a big throw-down at the high school dance), Gross Pointe Blank (watch the fight between Agent 83 and her nemesis near the lockers) and Spy Kids, which incidentally had Jessica Alba in one of its installments.

The supporting cast gives it all they have, and it makes for a reasonably entertaining film if your expectations are extremely low.  You’ll see every plot twist coming as it plays the formula way too safe to join the ranks of the “classic” teen films it elevates within the narrative.  Alba, and Jackson clearly know what kind of film this is and never take themselves too seriously, providing a kind of nudge and wink approach to their characters to give them a little charm.  Steinfeld is talented as she proved in 2010’s remake of True Grit and with her involvement with Pitch Perfect 2, but this project won’t really help her capitalize on the momentum she has.  With many other projects coming out this year, though, she should be fine.  While there are some nice moments, good cast chemistry, and the like, in the end, Barely Lethal, is barely entertaining.