You could make an argument that Netflix is redefining the teen romantic comedy, right under our noses.
Not so much re-inventing the genre as pushing what’s acceptable within the “TV-14” parameters.
Sex, teen drinking and profanity standards are leaping beyond the theatrical studios and MPAA’s practices.
Netflix hits like “The Kissing Booth” and now “#REALITYHIGH” may not offer much in the way of surprises. But when John Michael Higgins (“Best in Show/Pitch Perfect”), playing the principal at socially-wired/sexually and alcoholically active Vista Valley High sees his picture on the school wall defaced in the opening credits, he sets the tone for what is to follow.
“F— my life,” he mutters. Allll-righty then.
Beer busts, twerking cheerleaders in search of a pole to dance on, colorful frank “polyamorous” speculation, moist underwear, magic marker huffing and all of it making its mark on social media where they kids not only over-share, they basically stalk, harass and judge one-another at the speed of “like” — that’s the new “reality” here.
Our heroine is nice-girl/vet-school bound Dani (Nesta Cooper of “Edge of Seventeen”), or as snarky Miguel (Patrick Davis) puts it, “never-been-d—-d-Dani.”
How efficient of the three credited screenwriters here, combining the Latino punk with the Mean Girl Gay Boy, all in one package.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at the kennel, with all the other bitches?”
Dani is a bit of a frump, a senior who never quite got over a cruel summer camp prank in her tweens. The prankster? Evil, accented Alexa (Alicia Sanz). Now Alexa has even more power, a mean girl who posts #REALITYHIGH updates and has a huge social media following.
She’s dating Cameron (Keith Powers), the hunky Olympic-hopeful swimmer Dani has crushed on forever. Cameron’s pals have laid down the law.
“It’s like what Darwin said, ‘Hot people are SUPPOSED to have sex with each other!”
Then as Dani shows off her veterinary assistant skills with Cameron’s Pomeranian, Alexa finds a youtube star to date and dumps him. Could love, and a makeover for social leper Dani be in the offing?
Freddie (Jake Borelli), her fellow vet clinic volunteer and would-be DJ, the BFF who pines for her the way she longs for Cameron, sure thinks so. Can he stop this love-that-was-meant-to-be from getting traction?
Can Alexa, mean, shallow and controlling to her core, change?
Will Dani’s much hipper to social media little sister (Leah Rose Randall) point her in the right direction? “Get some LIKES!”
There’s some breathtaking cruelty here, dealt by and aimed at the mean girl. As kind people in the movies, especially predictably lame ones, always default toward forgiveness, will that blow up in Dani’s face? What do YOU think?
The kids gather at Bob’s Big Boy, an “American Graffiti/Happy Days” throwback (Santa Clarita was the filming location), compare cars and pass on advice about the opposite sex in between veggie burgers.
Cameron confers with his bros, who note Dani’s “feelings, thoughts” and stuff that separates her from Alexa.
“Yo, you might have to actually put in some work on this one. ”
Will Dani tumble into the tinsel-trap that could derail the future she has so carefully planned — a scholarship veterinary school, caring for critters and bonding with the boy she adores? It’s always the focused kid who lets everybody down by “having fun.”
“#REALITYHIGH” is intriguing in its deconstruction of the “economy” of social media queens, how they shop and photograph and “like” their way to freebies, peddling their influence to star-struck, pot-smoking horndog peers. Parties with fellow Internet phenomena (Kid Ink) create a bubble universe of fame, acquisitiveness and moral and ethical compromise to acquire what they crave.
Of course, Freddie is the lad who gets left behind. Shades of “Pretty in Pink.”
The cast is accomplished and confident, as you’d expect as these teens range in age from mid-20s to 30 (Ms. Sanz). That also tends to soften the blow of how “adult” the behavior they plunge into and the fashions they sample are. Yeah, they know how to “make a mean White Russian.” Not a stretch.
I liked the depiction of the gauntlet kids walk, just striding into school, as classmates’ camera phones record how they look, what they’re wearing and what the person posting that photo thinks of it, on a sex appeal scale.
The parents here are more sympathetic than is common in this genre — supportive, with solid advice, tuned in to where their kids are going wrong on social media.
I didn’t like much of the rest of what I saw and heard — trite situations, conflicts ripped off from eons of teen romances.
And how did this line, from a kid allegedly college bound, get past “Let’s try another take of that?”
“Sorry, I should never have drived you here.” Seriously?
When the screenwriters are so focused on naming a nerdy prankster on campus after one of their ranks (Broussard), juggling peripheral storylines and the Mexican director is fretting over the next costume change for one and all, stuff is bound to slip through the cracks.
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Cast: Nesta Cooper, Keith Powers, Alicia Sanz, Anne Winters, Jake Borelli, John Michael Higgins
Running time: 1:39