DVD Review: Barely Lethal (M, USA, 2015)

Oh the movie Barely Lethal could have been had it been in the hands of the right people.  There’s a neat little premise here, even a hint of charming self-awareness, but sadly director Kyle Newman and screenwriter John D’Arco have ignored the multitude of opportunities presented to them and ultimately made just another high school comedy – and not a very good one.

Said premise focuses on teenage secret agent Megan (Hailee Steinfeld), aka Number 83, who has been trained since she was a young child in a top secret government-run orphanage known as the Prescott Academy.  Under the stern direction of Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson, because who else?) Megan has thrived in her field but she yearns for a life of normalcy, so when the opportunity arises to fake her own death following the capture of wanted arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), she seizes it and stealthily sets up her new life as an exchange student attending high school in the US for the first time.  Having prepped herself for the high school experience by studying multiple issues of Teen Vogue and binge-watching the likes of ‘Bring It On’, ‘Mean Girls’ and ‘Beverly Hills 90210’, Megan is prepared to face her greatest battle yet.

Up to this point ‘Barely Lethal’ has been barely hilarious but a sense of fun has been established, and it seems potentially possible that the film will opt for a more satirical take on the teen film genre as Megan’s own cinematic research means she’s well versed in the school clique mentality (jocks, A/V geeks, the popular girls) positioning her perfectly to avoid social suicide; an early scene has Megan rejecting a lunch offer from a series of cheerleaders believing their invite to be a ‘Mean Girls’-esque trap only for us to discover they had the best of intentions all along.  It’s this type of quick-thinking that ‘Barely Lethal’ should’ve utilised throughout its scant running time to keep its audience invested, yet it barely sustains beyond its own foundation with the film then succumbing to the genre formula by having Megan fall for the hottest guy in school (Toby Sebastian) when it’s so clear that her geeky best friend (Thomas Mann) is the obvious choice; if she was so well versed in all things teen-film she’d know this stereotypical pattern.  Clearly I’m asking too much of a film where Jessica Alba is cast as a most-wanted villain, but you can’t help but feel disappointed when the film sets itself up for one vibe before careening to another.

The film doesn’t really elaborate on her supposed skill-set either with her ninja-type abilities relegated to a few minor moments of nothingness, and when she’s put against a fellow agent (Sophie Turner of TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’) the film once again fails to deliver any real bite to a series of sequences that are rife with snarky potential.  If there’s one thing ‘Barely Lethal’ gets right though, it’s the casting with the impossibly likeable Steinfeld (fresh off her appearance in ‘Pitch Perfect 2’) projecting enough sugariness, helplessness, and durability to hold the film together; it’s just a shame she isn’t working with stronger material.  Jackson is doing his usual shtick, but it works (even when he’s underused as he is here), Mann makes for a perfectly acceptable love interest, and Turner looks to be having fun as the bad girl, a nice change of pace from her stoic turn as Sansa Stark, but if there’s one person who surprises, it’s Alba.  Never an actress known for her strong thespian abilities, and I’m certainly not indicating she’s delivering such a performance here, but there’s an exuberant madness she brings to her role that really suits, and it’s clear the actress is having a lot of fun in the process (though, like Jackson, she’s underused as she essentially only book-ends the film).

I am clearly not the demographic ‘Barely Lethal’ was looking to court, but I can appreciate a good teen flick all the same, but when you get right to it I don’t know if the film even has an idea who it wants to cater for as it is too girly for the action fans and a bit too action oriented for the tween girls it’s so thirsty to sit with.  Chalk this one down to a wasted opportunity.


Barely Lethal is on DVD today through Roadshow. 


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Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.