Hell is a teen-aged girl.
-Needy, Jennifer’s Body
I know it, I can feel it
Well, I know it enough to believe it
And I know it, I can’t see it
But I know it enough to believe it
Bitter you, bitter me
My better half has bitten me
Bitter you, bitter me
Sleeping with my enemy
The pieces of Jennifer’s body
–”Jennifer’s Body,” Hole
The lyrics of “Jennifer’s Body” speak to many of the same themes explored in the recently released film of the same name: betrayals, abusive relationships, and self-deception all come to the fore in a film about a problematic friendship exacerbated by supernatural forces. While these themes certainly capture the horror that can be female friendships, the film’s treatment of the subject lacks depth. The film never quite finds its voice, and as a result, it feels unfocused, amateurish, and overwrought.
The film follows Needy (Amanda Seyfried), an awkward high school girl whose best friend, Jennifer (Megan Fox), possesses all the physical qualities that appeal to young men. This imbalance of sexual capital parallels Jennifer and Needy’s relationship: when Jennifer beckons Needy follows, as enamored of her friend as the boys who ogle Jennifer at school. As a result, the film establishes Jennifer and Needy’s relationship as both toxic and queer from the outset. When Jennifer becomes possessed by some sort of supernatural force, these dynamics become intensified. Jennifer seduces and literally consumes several horny teenage boys much to Needy’s horror even as the two kiss intensely. At the film’s climax, Needy attempts to save her boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) from Jennifer’s evil clutches and ultimately destroys Jennifer. In essence, heterosexuality wins and homosociality loses!
Needless to say, I don’t agree with the New York Times’ description of the film as “designed with both feminists and 15-year-old boy in mind.” I do, however, agree with writer Diablo Cody’s quote from the same article calling the film “crazy” and “chaotic.” Unlike Cody, I don’t mean this in a positive way. The film falters on so many levels aside from the dissatisfying plot that it’s hard to know where to begin.
My biggest qualm would have to be the dialog. Whereas the quirky quips of Juno felt a bit precious, the string of punny slang that passes for conversation between the primary characters not only lacks any kind of credibility but rarely succeeds at humor. More than anything, it draws attention to its attempts at hilariousness, making its consistent failure awkward to witness. A similar problem occurs at the visual level as well: the at-times garish costuming, self-aware cinematography, and obvious special effects feel cheep and uninspired. This style feels as desperate a try at coolness as Jennifer’s attempt to seduce a cute guy with patriotic layered shots.
And really, Jennifer’s Body does feel like the class poser when it comes to films about the violent side of teenage girlhood. As I watched it, I kept thinking about far superior films that predate it. Most obviously, I thought of Heathers, which also centers around a series of murders that occur at a high school. Here’s the trailer:
Unlike Jennifer’s Body, Heathers uses its premise to critique high school hierarchies and trends. Jennifer’s Body attempts such a satire, but falls far short of cleverness.
I also thought of The Virgin Suicides when Needy uttered the “Hell is a teen-aged girl” line. It echoed the exchange early in The Virgin Suicides between a middle-aged doctor and a young girl recovering from an attempted suicide. He says, “What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” She responds, “Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.” Both The Virgin Suicides and Jennifer’s Body explore the difficulties of girlhood during the teenage years, particularly in relation to social standards of beauty. Yet, the latter film does so by essentially confirming the worst stereotypes about pretty girls while The Virgin Suicides presents a more complex portrait of the ways in which attractiveness can be powerful and oppressive to girls with “good looks.”
Finally, I thought of Teeth, a solidly feminist horror film that like Jennifer’s Body examines myths aligning female sexuality with violence toward men. Here’s that trailer:
Teeth successfully critiques such myths through a character that subverts them while ultimately embracing the power of her mutation (adaptation?). Jennifer’s Body merely reinforces what it attempts to overturn.
In the end, Jennifer’s Body mirrors its insecure female protagonists in its style and substance. What a shame considering the potential of such concepts as revealed through the counterexamples above.