In its first 15 minutes, “Senior Year” plays like a “Clueless” parody with a hint of “Bring it On” as a treat.
I can only imagine that’s the vibe the new Netflix film is going for – our blonde, high school heroine sets the stage in voiceover, introducing us to her world and narrating her rise from awkward teen to head cheerleader and prom queen hopeful. Trade in jokes about Noxzema commercials for a slew of early 2000s buzzwords like “VMAs” and “CK One,” and you’ll get the picture.
Much like Cher Horowitz, Stephanie Conway (Angourie Rice) has a pretty sweet life, her main concerns revolving around sex with her boyfriend, perfecting cheerleading routines, and winning prom queen. But after a cheer stunt gone wrong, Stephanie ends up in a coma. Twenty years later, she wakes up in the year 2022 – this time played by Rebel Wilson. What’s a 37-year-old woman with a 17-year-old mentality to do? Go back to high school, of course, and try to win back the popularity she so desperately craves.
From here, the film takes great pains to make a caricature of everything it can lay its hands on. 2000s culture, Instagram culture, cheerleading, political correctness, PTA moms – you name it. But unlike “Clueless” – a clever, deftly deployed satire that still lands all these years later – “Senior Year” feels like a high school parody gone horribly wrong. Feeble attempts at absurdist comedy fall flat in a film that fails to weave its stabs at earnest emotion together with confused commentary that has nothing new to say about high school or its social hierarchies.
It’s not just that “Senior Year” isn’t funny. It’s also that half the time, the comedic construction of the so-called jokes makes no sense whatsoever. When 37-year-old Stepanie goes back to high school, she makes a Mr. T reference to a teacher tasked with showing her around. The teacher – a man who is ostensibly around Stephanie’s age – seems genuinely confused by the phrase “I pity the fool.” Now, maybe a teenager in the year of our Lord of 2022 wouldn’t know who Mr. T is, or what “I pity the fool” is a reference to (seems fake, but I’ll allow it for argument’s sake). But why would this man in his 30s not understand? Moreover, why is he the recipient of this reference rather than a teenager? Wouldn’t that be a better fit for the generational divide they’re trying to portray? What is the point of this moment? I, for the life of me, cannot figure it out, and the film doesn’t seem to know either.
There are of course, the obligatory jokes about how the culture has evolved since the early 2000s, shallowly rendered in a scene where Stephanie’s friend Martha (a poor, sweet Mary Holland giving us what she can in a film that gives her nothing) explains to her that she can no longer use a certain word for individuals with developmental disabilities, and she can’t describe things that she finds dumb as “super gay.” It’s a strange feeling, knowing that you are supposed to be laughing at something as you sit there stone-faced. The cadence of this exchange clearly telegraphs to the audience that it’s intended to be funny. But it’s just not! It’s not funny, it’s not clever, it’s not even really that offensive. Instead, it’s an overwrought point made in the most uncreative way possible.
As young Stephanie, Rice does what she can with very little to go on, but the actress is talented enough that bits and pieces of a funny performance shine through truly dismal writing, and she projects a confidence that feels on par with a Cher Horowitz type. But Rice’s bubbly composure makes Wilson’s performance all the more nonsensical. Wilson has the challenge of aging herself down to teenage status, but instead of attempting to take on Rice’s physicality or her expressions, Wilson goes straight for a broad, physical comedy that feels a decade younger than the age she’s going for. In a scene where Stephanie’s father takes her phone away, Wilson resorts to a toddler-inspired tantrum, slinging her backpack and slouching and huffing around like a disgruntled five year old. Her performance is not only totally incongruous with the performance we saw from Rice, but – once again – isn’t particularly funny at all.
That’s the real issue I keep coming back to. Good parody is difficult to get right, but “Senior Year” feels like we’ve hit a new low. We aren’t laughing at the jokes, we aren’t laughing at the characters, and we certainly aren’t laughing with them. So what are we doing here?