Here we go again. After Lila & Eve earlier this summer, here’s another example of a film that, if it were about a guy, would have gotten a big splashy release instead of being shuffled off to the land of VOD. (Arguably, American Ultra is sort of a guy version of this. That opened on 2,778 screens in North America. Barely Lethal opened on 22… after it had been on VOD for a month.) The fact that it stars Hailee Steinfeld, one of the most interesting young actors working today, and in a role that shows off comedy chops I don’t think any of us realized she had (and that even this summer’s Pitch Perfect 2 didn’t quite hint at) should have been enough to ensure this got in front of multiplex audiences. It’s also got Samuel L. Jackson and Game of Thrones’ Sophie “Sansa Stark” Turner. How is it that no one at a major distributor could see the value in this?
And it’s not even like Barely Lethal isn’t any good! (Not that crappy movies about boys don’t get big releases and major marketing pushes all the time.) It’s charming and funny, a wonderfully sweet and silly mashup of spy stuff and high-school comedies, like if John Hughes made a James Bond movie. It’s Spy meets Clueless. (Maybe if Hollywood had waited to release this until after the “surprise” success of Spy, it might have gotten a bigger push. But no: even in the U.K., where Lethal opens today, it’s getting only a limited release with same-day VOD availability. Argh!) Director Kyle Newman, in his second feature, and newbie screenwriter John D’Arco may not have broken any new ground here, but they get the tone just right as they send “Megan Walsh” (Steinfeld: Ten Thousand Saints, 3 Days to Kill) — that’s an alias, of course — to high school, where all her instincts about how to survive are wrong. See, she has been raised in a secret school for orphaned girls that trains them to become killing machines for international good, hunting down nefarious arms dealers and the like… but she just wants to be a regular kid. So she fakes her death while on a mission, becomes an “exchange student,” and enrolls in a typical suburban American high school.
Of course, high school is a lot tougher than being a secret agent. All of Megan’s ideas about how to behave in this alien environment come from movies like Mean Girls, which doesn’t help. (Her misconceptions become its own sly little commentary on how you shouldn’t judge a clique by its movies.) Megan commits plenty of faux pas along the way, but by the time one of those nefarious arms dealers (Jessica Alba: Entourage, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) tracks her down, her take on making sure you’ve got protection for homecoming may just win her some friends.
From Steinfeld’s perfect combination of deadly skills and eager innocence to the film’s inventive high-school slang — “totem pole” means “totally”; “nickel” means “cool” (I think) — Barely Lethal is an absolute delight. It’s a real shame that so many people who would really enjoy have likely never even heard of it.