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BARELY LETHAL is mediocre teen fodder, but Steinfeld is great…

Posted on June 5th, 2015
Posted on June 5th, 2015

by Coop Cooper

Good ‘Teen Movies’ are in short supply. The worst of them are overproduced, vapid studio films or sloppy, saccharine indies. “Barely Lethal” aims high by trying to channel some of the big studio films, but doesn’t quite rise to the challenge, even though its charismatic lead makes it enjoyable to watch.

Number 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teen government assassin who yearns for a normal, teenage high school experience, but her handler, Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson), keeps a tight reign on his proteges. While apprehending the traitorous terrorist, Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), 83 is lost during the mission and presumed dead. Taking advantage of the situation, 83 goes AWOL, changes her name to Megan Walsh and joins a student exchange program as a Canadian assigned to America. A nice family with a single-mother (Rachael Harris) hosts her and 83 predictably has trouble fitting in at home and at school, but she eventually begins to figure out how to navigate life as a normal teenager. Just as she is starting to feel at home, Hardman and the viciously jealous Number 84 (Sansa from “Game of Thrones”, Sophie Turner) track her down to bring her back into the fold.

While this didn’t get a wide release (it’s in limited theaters at the moment), it should gain a cult following, especially when it drops on video. It has all of the essential elements of a teen movie. In fact, Number 83 studies teen movies in order to prepare for high school life, with disastrous results. It should have worked considering all of the cliches are present, 83 just reads them all wrong. For instance she dresses like the girls in “Mean Girls” not realizing the fashions are out of date, she mistakes the cheerleaders as her natural enemies and, of course, she goes for the wrong guy. While the film doesn’t reach the same levels of cleverness that “Mean Girls” and some of the other popular teen films, it is likable in a silly way.

There are a few fun running gags: 1. 83’s little host brother who aspires to be a ninja and is always finding and playing with 83’s weapons in front of oblivious family members. 2. The wannabe macho dad who is always trying to connect to his sensitive son through awkward talk about girls and sex. 3. 83’s inability to curb her hand-to-hand combat training when presented with a surprising situation. None of these things are new but they add to the experience.

Barely Lethal” has a problem in establishing a consistent tone at the beginning. While it’s clear that these teen assassins are killing people, it is only suggested and not actually shown. I suppose that’s to keep things light, but for a PG-13 rating, there is no edge to it besides the occasional crude sexual reference or profanity. Because of this, the film exists in a limbo where it’s a bit too adult for young teens but not quite action-packed or racy enough for the typical seventeen-and-up crowd. Plus it doesn’t have the polish that most teen films have. It feels rushed in some places and doesn’t flesh out the characters as well as it could. It’s entertaining enough, but I can see why it was only given a limited release.

Steinfeld is “Barely Lethal’s” secret weapon. She is such a great actress and so likable, she makes the shaky plot easy to watch. Sophie Turner shows some versatility here and I suspect once done with “Thrones”, she will pursue an ambitious movie career. Jackson and Alba are pretty much wasted in short, thankless roles. I suspect these parts were mere paychecks to them.

The movie steals liberally from many other films… , “Clueless” (1995), , “American Pie” (1999), “Sixteen Candles” (1984), the aforementioned “Mean Girls” (2004). There are also some films involving teens that bend the genre and redefine it as this film attempts… “Detention” (2011), “Hanna” (2011), “Heathers” (1988). Some of these are more adult, others are more polished, but all are better films than “Barely Lethal”.

2 and ½ out of 5 stars

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