It’s been a while since I’ve watched Heathers but I have recently gotten the chance to read Daniel Waters’ brilliant screenplay during a long car ride. Heathers has always been one of those movies that I adequately enjoyed but never fully understood. It always struck me as a hair too cynical, the protagonist as a little too precocious. Over the years though, I’ve come to appreciate the film more, embracing the twisted emotional journey of its protagonist and uncovering a quietly empathetic message about teen hierarchies and insecurities.
Heathers revolves around Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), who hangs out with the Heathers, stock mean girls at her school who are beautiful, shallow, and ridiculously popular. At the beginning of the movie, Veronica meets J.D. (Christian Slater), a new student who’s a little bit of James Dean meets Beetlejuice. J.D. tests her boundaries but the cruel Heathers and other members of their clique die by framed suicide.
Heathers poses biting commentary about the futility of teenage popularity, the ephemerality of martyrdom. Ostensibly, it creates an us-versus-them dichotomy. The Heathers are the mean girls and everyone else, their helpless victims. But then we have Veronica. Without Veronica, this film would be just a good-versus-evil bully revenge film. Veronica’s character exists in a gray area between the popular and the unpopular. She’s a snarky goth queen who, despite looking down upon the most popular girls at her school, still hangs around them. The dichotomy between her thoughts and actions renders her a compelling character. Her choice to hang around the Heathers reflects her insecurities. She remains complicit in all of their bullying. But she stays because being part of the in-group makes her feel safe.
Veronica is a feminist figure who overcomes male abuse from popular jocks as well as that from her boyfriend. Towards the end, the dramatic tension shifts from will J.D. corrupt Veronica to will Veronica survive? And Veronica does, indeed, survive J.D.’s mess. Despite her disdain for the self-obsessed culture at her school, Veronica puts on the white hat and becomes the new sheriff in town, as she so adeptly tells Heather Chandler.
Heathers has been called a dark cult comedy. Yet it’s more optimistic than I’ve given it credit for in the past. At the end of the day, Veronica refuses J.D.’s nihilism, ensuring that he’s the only victim of his actions. She befriends the chronically bullied student Martha Dunnstock, someone who unwittingly became a casualty in trying to mimic the deaths of the popular students. She achieves self-actualization, realizing her responsibilities as the new ruler of the school. She realizes that her classmates aren’t merely blind sheep. Like Martha, many students, entrenched in their vulnerabilities and insecurities, seek guidance, even in the most perverse forms.