Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld) is a teenage special ops agent who yearns for a normal adolescence. After faking her own death she assumes the role of an exchange student in a suburban high school. Hoping to live the lit of a regular teenager she quickly learns that surviving the treacherous waters of dating and fitting in isn't as easy as she thought. Complicating matters is her former handler and current nemesis 'Victoria' (Jessica Alba) who enlists the help of rival teen agent 'Heather' (Sophie Turner) to go undercover at her high school and capture her. With the help of her mentor 'Hardman' (Samuel L. Jackson), Megan embarks on a fight for survival as she realises that high school can be even tougher than international espionage.
Barely Lethal is another one of those cross-genre pictures where there was a mixup at the movie factory. Director Kyle Newman either got some secret agent action in his high school teen movie or he got some high school hijinks in his secret agent movie. Whatever his intentions, the result is not some wonderful discovery of peanut butter and jelly sandwich proportions. It’s more of a ridiculous mess that doesn’t taste as completely awful as you’d expect. Perhaps a peanut butter and ketchup sandwich.
The film starts out promising enough with Hailee Steinfeld playing Number 83, a trained assassin since birth that takes an interest in the teenager elements she was denied. She’s not entirely alone given that she’s part of the Prescot Academy which seems to specialize in training young girls to be trained killers. I’m not too sure where this school is hosted, but their classroom appears as the old war room from Doctor Strangelove. I’d like to think the class was using this room as a temporary location of old storage rather just being a lame excuse for what visually constitutes a secret organization. Their instructor Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) drills them on all forms of offense and defense as when he gives them a test at their desks to stab a doll in the correct body points.
Tired of all the killings and training, Number 83 one day discovers the films Mean Girls and Bring It On. Impressed by the depiction of high school, 83 decides to fake her death during a mission and become a normal high school girl by the name of Megan. This is where the film gets interesting as this mostly sheltered spy tries to adapt to a high school setting based on her preconceptions. She is offered a spot at a lunch table by some cheerleaders, but is so indoctrinated with the non-existent high school caste system that she believes it to be a social trap. This could have been a hilarious script with 83 basing all of high school off old misconceptions from movies about teenagers.
That is, if the film were actually trying to go for that angle. Barely Lethal spends more time actually adhering to the high school movie cliches than actually mocking them. It wants to poke fun, but never deconstruct. She spots the dorky A/V geek labeling him as such and the cocky guitar player who she has a crush on. The guitar player wastes no time at all wooing her with a song on stage and the A/V geek just quietly stands off to the side looking at her shyly. We know how this is all going to turn out, but Megan apparently doesn’t. This makes me question how her assassin trained mind reacts to such media. Either she has a poor means of reading people (surprising for a secret agent) or she desperately needs to see more high school movies for that magic to wear off.
The biggest kink in Barely Lethal is that it barely even understands the world it aims to mock or dance within. The high school of this movie seemed to come with an air of reality to contrast movie depictions, but that’s sucked right out the window in favor of such tropes. The dialogue is extremely base to the point where all the enthusiastic nature of the characters turn sour from such a script. Hardman captures Megan at one point to question what she is doing. When Megan begins to cry in frustration, Hardman yells “Prescott’s don’t cry!”. He turns to his assistant Pedro (Steve-O) and asks if she is crying. Pedro replies with “maybe she saw The Notebook too many times.” It’s a bit that if it doesn’t whisper sexism, it screams desperation.
The action scenes that begin to ramp up in the third act are not too shabby, but seem to come at strange times and with little smarts. Megan’s rival, Number 84 (Sophie Turner), joins the high school as well to keep an eye on Megan and steal her boyfriend away. When the jealousy grows bitterly large, they start a fight while at prom and in front of everyone. They take it to the hallways where firehoses are used as blunt weapons. They take it to the kitchen where they attack each other with pans and knives. All these moments including some car chases are brilliantly staged, but wouldn’t having a public fight at the prom blow your cover?
The bottom line is that Barely Lethal just barely cares about its own premise. Whereas films like Kick-Ass eventually found a tone with the action and the absurd, this attempt is all over the map and never anywhere all that original. It could have been a crazy and silly action picture, but is mostly toned down. It could have been a savage high school satire, but it’s far too interested in the traditional to make light of the expected. Teenage girls might get a kick out of it as a sort of reverse, female revision of Kingsman, but anyone outside that demographic are going to find themselves let down for a premise that peters outs and twists into a sophomore effort. I would not be surprised at all if director Kyle Newman’s only experience of youth in high school is through Mean Girls and Bring It On being his inspiration.