Movie Review: “Barely Lethal”

“Barely Lethal” is a fairly amusing rough draft for a high concept high school romantic comedy.

It’s “Agent Cody Banks” meets “Sixteen Candles” — with quotably snark one-liners, hormonal kids being hormonal, and a socially inept teen the mean girls don’t want to cross. Because she knows 66 ways to kill you.
Hailee Steinfeld of “Pitch Perfect 2” is #83, who has been trained as an assassin, pretty much since birth. But she longs to see “this whole other world I’m missing” and go to high school. Or at least the version of high school she’s seen on “90210,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Mean Girls” and the films of John Hughes.
That’s why she fakes her death so her boss (Samuel L. Jackson, of course) won’t come looking for her. That’s why she passes herself off as an exchange student “from…Canada” at Newton High.
But those movies and dated TV shows are no guide for blending in — today. Let’s start with the fashions.
“You look like you had a one-night-stand with Mr. Potatohead!”
Then, there’s the labeling that those comedies tend toward. Calling the helpful Roger (Thomas Mann) “an A.V. Geek” is no way to make friends.
Megan, as #83 now calls herself, may be able to break into the school to change seating assignments and defend herself from a “kidnap the school mascot” (her) prank. She may have studied up via movies. But that doesn’t keep her from falling for the pretty and shallow boy with a band, known as “The Wrong Guy” in “Pretty in Pink” and its ilk.
Director Kyle Newman is entirely too tentative with a potentially terrific script by John D’Arco.
The best lines go to Dove Cameron, as the edgy, eye-rolling “sister” in Megan’s host family. Her put downs, long or short, are lethal.
“Jesus, Ringwald!”
Jackson has fun taunting the little orphan girl trainees as he teaches them martial arts and bomb defusal. And Jessica Alba, as a “rogue agent,” gets a nice fight scene.
Steinfeld (“True Grit”) is more at home here than among the Bellas of “Pitch Perfect.” But the film feels like a series of pulled punches, slow-footed and sluggish.
With the teen world crying out for this generation’s “Breakfast Club,” with teens swearing, drinking and narrowly dodging bad decisions, “Barely Lethal” suggests that movie is coming. It just needs more polish than this.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 on appeal for sexual material, teen drinking, language, drug references and some action violence

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Samuel L. Jackson, Thomas Mann, Jessica Alba, Dove Cameron, Sophie Turner
Credits: Directed by Kyle Newman, script by John D’Arco. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:38

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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