Someone forced a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of High School Movies…
...and then it wrote Netflix’s Senior Year.
There’s something wholly unique and everlasting about the High School Movie genre. Most everyone, at least in our Western culture, relates to the teenage experience in the same way; separated only by the socioeconomic clique into which they fall. And since there’s a new incoming freshman class each year, it only makes sense that film studios remain invested in the HSM genre. The genre, in fact, is the perfect base with which to blend ANY OTHER GENRE, so why not take advantage of just how malleable the structure can be and churn out hit after hit? Well, the answer for why not is Senior Year.
The concept behind Senior Year is a blend of several HSM tropes: the social hierarchy of cheerleaders, an outsider becoming popular, winning Prom Queen, and dating the most popular boy in school, among others. The crux of the film, however, hinges on a protagonist going back to high school, like so many HSM films that have come before; in this particular case, the outsider going back to her senior year is a 37-year-old woman (Stephanie, played by Rebel Wilson) who has been in a coma for the past 20 years. At the beginning of the film, we learn Stephanie moved to the states from Australia in her early teens. She vows, during a rough freshman year, that she will spend the rest of her high school career becoming popular and acquiring what she considers to be “the perfect life.” Once she’s achieved her goals, she’s promptly sabotaged by a rival cheerleader, the dreaded Tiffany, landing her in said 20-year coma.
The premise for Senior Year is sound, and in more capable hands, this movie could have really soared. What it distinctly lacks is a point of view and a message worth sending home. From the beginning of the film (which opens with an adult Stephanie recording an apology to the friends she has wronged), one can’t help but already begin to compare it to every other HSM film. Instantly you’re reminded of 2010’s Easy A opening and closing bookends where Emma Stone’s Olive is recording and narrating, essentially, the story of the film itself. Easy A isn’t the only example of a film using this apology/self-tape plot device, in fact, this very presentation references one of my generation’s favorites, Never Been Kissed (but in that film, Drew Barrymore’s Josie issues her apology in a good ole fashioned newspaper). Obviously, these films are going to reference each other and tell somewhat similar stories (that’s what makes them both relatable and timeless), but you’ve got to be able to back those references up with at least SOME original thought, of which Senior Year has very little.
When Stephanie wakes up from her coma, she’s told by the medical staff that while she has the body of a 37-year-old, she still has the mind of a 17-year-old. For an R rated comedy, one would think the writers would have a field day with the social and legal implications of this age discrepancy…but instead, the age gap is mostly used for Stephanie to force herself back into her senior year, use lingo from the late 90’s/early noughties, and continually wipe her middle fingers on her ass when she walks away. In fact, the adult Stephanie is much cruder and more immature than her earlier 17-year-old counterpart (Mare of Easttown and the MCU Spider-Man franchise’s Angourie Rice). The Angourie version of Stephanie seemed mostly likable, if not occasionally socially obtuse, and had a better head on her shoulders than the Rebel version, but I suppose this change in character of arrested development was where some of the comedy was supposed to come in.
Speaking of arrested development, it seems as if the entire cast (sans the new high school students) suffers from the same malady. Stephanie’s widower father (delightful, but bland, Chris Parnell) lives an almost identical life to the one pre-coma, and all of the key players in Stephanie’s high school career have conveniently remained in their hometown. When Stephanie was originally in high school, she lived somewhat of a double life: one with her OG best friends (Martha played by teen Molly Brown and adult Mary Holland, and Seth played by teen Zaire Adams and adult Sam Richardson) and the other with her “popular” friends (her then-boyfriend Blaine played by teen Tyler Barnhardt and adult Justin Hartley and cheerleading rival-turned-Blaine’s wife Tiffany played by teen Ana Yi Puig and adult Zoë Chao). Stephanie’s awakening brings all four of these people into her orbit to varying degrees. Martha just so happens to be their high school’s current principal, securing Stephanie’s re-entry, Seth is now the school librarian, Tiffany is on the PTA, and Blaine…well, Blaine (in a waste of a perfectly good Justin Hartley) is just horndogging it up on the sidelines.
Tiffany and Blaine are now parents to the current reigning popular girl, Bri, who is most well known for her influencer social media handle, BriLoves. Zoë Chao as the adult Tiffany is doing all the heavy lifting in this film and is easily the only character that has any chemistry with any of the other actors. She has to play foil to all of them (as the disgruntled wife to her dopey husband, as the mom who is trying desperately to relive her high school years through her daughter, and obviously as the rival to Stephanie, Martha, and Seth). The rest of the actors obviously act in scenes with each other, but they’re just reciting the lines. For that matter, there are some actors who seem to have no purpose at all, like poor guidance counselor Mr. T (Brandon Scott Jones) and 2022 cheerleader Niel (Jeremy Ray Taylor). Besides a few attempts at some lackluster jokes (If your name is Mr. T, you’re going to understand the “I pity the fool” reference; you can’t convince me otherwise), these characters just exist to fill up space.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge this cast and crew the fun they, most likely, enjoyed on set. When watching a film that isn’t quite sitting with me, I always have to remind myself that this project provided this group of people with employment, and I can certainly get behind that. But when it comes to the sanctity of the spirit stick *cough* I mean, genre, I can also hope for these comedies to be, at the very least, funny.
Lastly, the biggest discrepancy within Senior Year is the question of whether or not current high school students are too “woke.” Martha, as the principal, but also a key player in Stephanie’s high school career, argues that without winners, there can be no losers. So, in her modernized version of a high school, the cheerleaders are fully clad and cheer about consent and equality and there is no such thing as a prom court. Because without these types of social hierarchies, there’s no room for anyone to feel left out. When Stephanie comes back to school, however, she quickly is distraught with the lack of a social ranking. She had strived for the past three years (in her 17-year-old mind) to move past these hurdles, so why should anyone get a ticket to bypass them? Rather than deal with this moral dilemma (amidst the other deeper questions of how do we find self-worth), Senior Year decides instead to focus on the lack of sex appeal in the cheerleader squad with a healthy dose of Britney Spears and a revealing cheer routine where a “17-year-old” senior actively tries to seduce a crowd full of children and adults. It’d be funny, ya know, if it was funny.
Senior Year was written by three men and directed by another, and I can’t help but wonder if they were the right fit for this type of film. Director Alex Hardcastle has directed a number of episodes from FX’s indie darling You’re the Worst (which I love), but this seems like a different ballpark from a show featured on terrible, independent adults. This group of adult men seems like they felt they had something to say about our current “woke” culture, especially in regards to how our youth is treated, but nothing quite lands. Regardless, Senior Year seems both aimless in current societal critique AND in current comedy, and that combination is a damn shame. The redeeming qualities at the end of the film are a lights out cameo by a HSM genre Queen and the musical use of a late-90s banger at the beginning of the credits (which I’ve had stuck in my head ever since I watched the film). But other than that, it’s a real snooze fest.
I have the wisdom of my age to realize that not every comedy is going to land, but it would be nice to be able to trust that a film that has the star power of Senior Year could at least approach the final dismount. The disappointing realization is that even as a teen, this film wouldn’t speak to me. It has no defining foresight of how life is in high school, how life could be past high school, and no deeper insight into what it means to be a human navigating the world. When producing a film that will go into the HSM genre’s lexicon, you’ve gotta aim for three things: funny, iconic, and insightful. When you can’t hit any of these benchmarks, that’s when you throw in the towel. Sadly, Senior Year was shooting for Prom Queen, but it should have settled for most likely to be forgotten.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.