Do Revenge *
Starring: Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke, Austin Abrams, Ava Capri, Sarah Michelle Gellar
Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson
American high school teen comedies are big business, sitting squarely at the crossover where teen and adult markets meet. Netflix’s Do Revenge, a remake of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On A Train starring Riverdale’s Camila Mendes and Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke, has all the hallmarks of a fresh new entry in this already bulging canon, except for one small – but important – detail.
Drea (Mendes) is a scholarship student at an expensive private school in Miami, with her future in Yale and Harvard Law already mapped out. But when she sends an intimate selfie to her boyfriend Max (Abrams – The Walking Dead), who then leaks it around the school, her life comes crashing down around her. Eleanor (Hawke) is the new girl at the school and the only person she knows is her ex-best friend (Capri – Love, Victor), who spread a rumour around her previous school that she tried to force herself on her after she came out as gay. When Drea and Eleanor meet, they realise that in order to enact their vengeance without suspicion, the perfect ruse would be to swap their victims and “do revenge” on those who have wronged them.
What follows is the encyclopaedic A-Z of high school movies: cliques, sassy one-liners, bitchy girls, teenage crushes, kitschy costumes, thirty-year-olds playing teenagers, ludicrous displays of wealth, birthday parties more elaborate than weddings. Mendes and Hawke are both superb, with the former fizzing with teenage charm (she’s 28, by the way) and the latter dead-pan and awkward (she’s 24). With a script that satirises slut-shaming, homophobia and fake wokeism – to name but a few – it’s a comedy that actually has a lot to say. And if you ignore the last half hour, when double-cross follows double-cross and the narrative becomes fairly ludicrous – this is a tightly wound genre film that literally tips its hat to films like Cruel Intentions, Clueless and Mean Girls by re-enacting many of their iconic scenes and even casting the excellent Sarah Michelle Gellar as the school’s headteacher!
So, what’s the problem? Well it’s subtle and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of moment, but for a film that is drenched in its own wokery that makes jabs left, right and centre at racist, sexist and homophobic bigotry, it comes as a real surprise to see it not just drop the ball but lob it directly at a window. As you might expect, the final act of Do Revenge features a climactic scene in which all the twists and backstabbing are revealed, including Max’s crimes. Throughout the film, Max has been built as a charming, charismatic but smarmy character, born with a sliver spoon in his mouth, adored but untouchable. But just as we come to his final downfall, at the moment when we see him for his absolute worst, around his neck – as bold as brass and as clear as day – is a Star Of David necklace.
For some inexplicable reason, the director has chosen to take this moment to reveal that the film’s villain is Jewish. There has been no mention of any characters’ religions whatsoever through the film – positive or negative – but its very inclusion, let alone the time of its revelation, not only seems questionable, but downright antisemitic. Maybe it’s a reference to author Highsmith’s renowned Nazi collaboration, but you’d have to be pretty clued-up to decode that. Can there be any other reading than the “othering” of Max in his final moments on screen? As though it’s justifying his behaviour by giving us an excuse: “Don’t worry, he’s not like us after all.”
There has been a lot of discourse in recent years that antisemitism is the final frontier of prejudice both in Hollywood and our society. Do Revenge seems to be a prime example of this; where it declares itself a diverse film at the top of its voice, but it still signals antisemitism behind its back. There is, of course, the argument that this is all just an accident and no offence was intended (etc., etc.) but at some point, someone made the conscious decision that the villain should be Jewish and we only find this out at his very worst moment. And it’s difficult to come to any other conclusion, which undermines absolutely everything else that the filmmaker achieved. It might be fun, engaging and gloriously self-aware, but it is deeply stained by its baffling antisemitism.
UK Release: Out now on Netflix