Monday, February 26, 2024

‘Do Revenge’ is Prickly Sweet

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Do Revenge is a movie I spent holding my breath, hoping against hope that it would nail the landing, and it did. An homage to high school movies about mean girls and revenge, it manages to skewer popular progressive vernacular while never belittling them. Also, it has more than a little in common with Halina Rejin’s Bodies Bodies Bodies in the way it examines class and privilege; both movies sidestep reductionism in favor of a more entertaining complex realization.

Jennifer Kaitlyn Robinson has made a gleaming love letter to those high school movies, to the point that when one character is asked if they’d like a tour of the new school, she replies with, “I mean as a disciple of the 90s teen movie, I would be offended if I didn’t get one.” “If you get offended, Rosehill does have a designated safe space for that.” Robinson co-wrote the film with Celeste Ballard, and the duo craft a style of dialogue that is self-aware but also believable in the world they have created.

do revenge
Eleanor (Maya Hawke) and Drea (Camila Mendes) share a quiet moment in between reigning chaos

Do Revenge is a delightfully mean movie that is never mean-spirited. Underneath all the acid-tongue remarks and venomous put-downs, Robinson and Ballard buried a big old beating heart. Revenge drives the plot, but what the fuel is how Drea (Camila Mendes) and Elanor (Maya Hawke) realize that they are letting the trauma of their pasts dictate their actions in the present.

Drea is the once popular HBIC of the prestigious Rosehill Academy, a school for the uber-wealthy of Miami, that Drea is attending because of a scholarship. Mendes plays Drea with gusto, reveling in her awfulness while showing her softer side. Yet, she does this without ever asking us to like Drea. We do that all on our own.

Her mom is a nurse, and despite her social clout, she is reminded by herself and her “friends” that she may be among them, but she is not “one” of them. Drea is atop the world, but even she recognizes her reign may be fleeting.

Eleanor is the new girl at Rosehill. The opposite of Drea in style and personality. Hawke takes the unassuming Eleanor and makes her a fascinating enigma. Deeply wounded, she is also desperate for friendship and some form of understanding, and revenge. Fueled by the desire to see not just those who have wronged them but the rich and powerful get some punishment. 

The two trauma-bond one summer at tennis camp. Drea’s ex-boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams) leaked a video that Drea made for him of her pleasuring herself and posted it online for all to see. Abrams’ smarmy smirk all but screams guilty even as he claims he must have been hacked. On the other hand, Eleanor wishes to see Carissa (Ava Capri) go down in flames because when they were younger, Elanor came out to her, only to have Carissa spread the rumor that she held her down and tried to kiss her.

Carisa (Ava Capri) the woman who outed Eleanor

Both girls have suffered extreme public humiliation while the people behind them seemed to have gotten off scot-free. Max plays the victim so well that he even starts a club for men only, the Cis Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League-in Drea’s honor. The little punk even has her stand up while he makes the announcement, ensuring that the club and Drea are forever linked.

Robinson is having a ball showing girls behaving badly all while also having fun with homages. Sarah Michelle Gellar shows up as the Headmistress, an iron-willed woman who has the girls both terrified and in awe. Gellar is, as always, pitch-perfect. Her Headmaster is someone who is not-so-secretly rooting for Drea to pull her head out of her ass.

Honestly, I was in the movie’s bag the moment it became clear Robinson and Ballard were using the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and repurposing it for their ends. Drea and Maya make a pact to do revenge on the other person’s abuser. But, of course, this leads to a makeover, and Drea plots how each one will pull off their revenge.

The dual narration by both Hawke and Mendes is a beautiful touch by Robinson and Ballard. It cements Do Revenge as both Drea’s and Eleanor’s stories; they share the narrative. It also adds to the vibe that Robinson has meticulously crafted, making it seem like each girl is telling a story to a friend or possibly a therapist.

do revenge
Eleanor (Hawke) contemplates her vengeance

Do Revenge is brimming with stylish panache. Everything about Do Revenge is note-perfect, from the outfits to the song choices. It’s such a breezy good time that if that were all Robinson was interested in; it would be enough. But it’s the little ways her characters show complexities. For example, Drea’s best friend Tara (Alisha Boe) is dating Max and has cut Drea off, and she feels remorse for what she did to her friend.

The script has a lot of little twists and turns, some grandiose and others smaller. At the top of my review, I mentioned how I held my breath, mainly due to a reveal later in the movie. However, the way Robinson navigates the rest of the film is a delight in seeing a director embrace the complexity and human failings of characters while also not giving them a free pass. 

Do Revenge is a revenge movie that understands the desire to see people who hurt us pay and how an obsession with that desire can be just as damaging as the trauma itself. Yet, at the same time, it’s a blast to watch, with everyone giving a scene-stealing performance, especially Sophie Turner, who shows up as a snobbish entitled rich girl who crosses the wrong mean girl. Turner embraces the archness of her character, and it’s a delight to see her dial her performance to eleven and keep it there.

Brian Burgoyne’s camera makes every frame of Do Revenge a delight to behold. With splashy neon colors and light, his camera fawns over the outrageous outfits while relishing how the characters move and sit. It is an all-seeing eye that is also the subjective lens of whichever girl is narrating at the time. Robinson and Burgoyne keep Do Revenge moving at such a crisp, brisk clip I was stunned to realize it was two hours; it didn’t feel like it.

Do Revenge understands fundamentally, despite their pretensions at being an adult, these are just kids trying to find their way in a world that is becoming more and more hostile. Add to that the way Hawke and Mendes reveal the hidden depths of their characters, the way they cradle, confide and comfort one another, all while plotting the downfall of those who have wronged them, adds a layer of sublime complexity. Do Revenge has a bite to its bark and a great love and empathy for its characters, except Max, f- that guy.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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