A Story That Spins Out of Orbit
In 1951, Alfred Hitchcock released Strangers on a Train to lukewarm reviews. Strangers on a Train was a thriller film noir based on a novel by the writer Patricia Highsmith. In it, two strangers meet on a train and they are not what they seem. One is a tennis star looking for a way out of his marriage, while the other is a psychopath with a grand scheme that would solve both of their problems. The tennis star would kill the other man’s father, while the other man would kill the star’s wife. Their logic? They thought that if they were not connected initially, it would not seem suspicious that this happened. Since this is the basic premise, the film goes much deeper than that and delves deep into the psychological territory that comes with committing and planning such acts. Netflix’s newest teenage revenge story, Do Revenge, takes inspiration from the Hitchcock film and applies it to what has become a classic trope in the genre: the mean girl in high school getting a healthy dose of a reality check.
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Do Revenge was first announced in 2020, with director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson attached as the co-writer along with Celeste Ballard. Camila Mendes and Maya Hawke were soon revealed to be the leads in the film, and the rest of the star-studded cast — in recent YA years — was gradually revealed as well. Slated for a 2022 release in September on Netflix’s streaming platform, the film adds to Netflix’s recent string of releases appealing to the YA genre. Many of these consist of similar features, exposing a trend where the protagonists talk directly to the audience, providing exposition that leans a bit excessive at times.
Riverdale’s Camila Mendes stars as Drea, juxtaposed against Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke portraying Eleanor. Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner makes several quick appearances as a fellow student who clashes with Drea and comes out on the losing side, while Sarah Michelle Gellar, too, makes several quick appearances throughout the movie as the school’s headmaster. Drea’s ex-boyfriend is portrayed by Austin Abrams (The Walking Dead, Euphoria, Dash & Lily). Those with more acute eyes will spot a star of Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, Maia Reficco, and Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between’s leading lady: Talia Ryder. With a cast that consists of YA regulars by this point, it comes as no surprise they have nailed this routine down—their performances in Do Revenge are good, even if the characters are very unlikable.
A Sprint Towards Vengeance
In a world where private high schoolers wear extravagant costumes to parties, Drea Torres (Mendes) runs this ecosystem. With a voiceover narration adding in the missing bits of important context, this story starts at Drea’s party, where the balloons and cupcakes are adorned with her face. Videos playing footage of her Teen Vogue interview are scattered throughout, and the other students gossip about overthrowing their Queen Bee. “I spent seventeen years meticulously curating the perfect life,” Drea explains, “and now that I had it, no one was going to take it away from me.” And so begins Do Revenge, which shows a life in which her dream life was indeed taken away from Drea. Although the viewer is constantly told that she comes from a struggling background compared to her peers, this is never actually shown on the screen, making this Drea’s world with a lack of sympathy towards the fact that she is different from her peers.
When Drea makes a topless video for her boyfriend, Max (Abrams), it gets leaked and everyone on campus knows about it. Her principal makes it a point to drive home that Drea, who was not born into wealth and attends the school on a scholarship, needs to be on her best behavior to try and achieve her dream of attending Yale. Instructed to channel her anger, Drea decides she is going to do so, but life has a new accomplice heading her way: Eleanor (Hawke). Both girls have been victims of bullies and rumors at school, so they unite to get revenge against those who had wronged them at school.
Drea and Eleanor could not seem like opposites at first. Drea, who is more high-strung, reaches for the stars and was trying to climb up the totem pole socioeconomically, which is what led to her downfall. She dresses up in the latest trends, getting shamed by her classmates for shopping at Salvation Army, while Eleanor fits the stereotypical look of someone expected to shop at a thrift store. Eleanor also comes from wealth, and her reason for revenge is she was outed as a lesbian and said to have forced a girl to kiss her. The two’s friendship evolves when they make a bathroom pact to go after each other’s bullies for them and, despite the consequences that could happen if they were caught.
So the plan begins. Drea starts to work at the farm where Carissa, who caused Eleanor’s troubles, to try and get closer to her. At the same time, Eleanor goes under a drastic makeover to try and get Max’s attention to break his group from the inside out. As their plotting gets deeper and affects more than just the people they initially targeted, the tables begin to turn, showing how ugly the notion of revenge can get. Their friendship, though, is one of the key takeaways of this film. These two girls, who were isolated by their friends and ridiculed by classmates, find a friendship in each other, even if the original concept of uniting them is getting back at the source of their problems. It is when their relationship turns sour, exposing the toxic basis it was founded, that emotions become high.
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More of a Dramatic Film
For a comedy, Do Revenge starts shaky. It technically is a black comedy, but the first jokes come off as flat. When Drea’s ex-boyfriend reveals that he is founding the epitome of a white male ally club in her honor, publicly humiliating her at a school assembly, the name of the club tries to come across as a joke. However, it does not land well considering the loaded context behind this moment. There is a Hitchcock influence in this movie, but Do Revenge’s biggest plight is that it comes across as too unfocused. Subplots focusing on random romances between the two leads and other characters feel a bit too forced, playing into the traditional tropes of the genre to try and make it more conventional.
With relevant popular songs from Olivia Rodrigo and Rosalia mixed in and school protests about climate change, the movie feels more relevant for today’s youth. There are the theater kids obsessed with Hamilton, who ended up with a cease and desist from the show’s creator, and the Instagram girls who have a slightly unhealthy leaning toward pretending to know astrology and tarot cards. There’s a clear nineties influence in the costuming, as the students lean towards nineties trends and school attire, but with a contemporary twist with the light pastels and mixing of colors. Then there is Max, one of the antagonistic figures. He is the rich white private schooler who bends situations to his favor, even if he is the sinister source of it all. This performative nature feels legitimate, something seen exploited in everyday interactions between classes and those who have established power dynamics.
There is underlying commentary scattered throughout about privilege, status, and what it takes to truly have great revenge. Do Revenge will land best with fans of Mean Girls and Heathers—which just had its newest musical version come out—as it leans more towards the familiar tropes of the genre with nods towards the era it was made in. Each generation needs an update to the mean girl in the high school genre, and Do Revenge certainly fits the bill. It may not be high art, but it gets the job done. When viewed not as a comedy, it fits well as a coming-of-age drama. Despite not properly fitting its genre, it still hashes out the differences that separate social classes today in a world that is feeling more divided than ever. Drea is the classic student trying to make it to the top, and when she does not make it the way she initially expected it to, she diverts her path and finds a new way to get there. But, in the end, does that make her better than her classmates?
Do Revenge is available to stream on Netflix as of September 16, 2022.