One of the key ingredients of a good teen movie is an unimpeachable confidence in its own powers. By that metric, Netflix’s Do Revenge, directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and starring Camila Mendes and Maya Hawke, is swimming in goodness. Right from the moment, we meet Drea Torres (Mendes), queen bee at her super-fancy private school Rosewell, every single image or dialogue thrown our way goes a long way into creating a very believable, rarefied world of elite high school cliques. We are told that Camila, a scholarship kid who works at the local tennis club for pocket money, has spent a lot of time cultivating her current ‘it girl’ image.
“If you haven’t already gleaned, my friends were born into this life, but I was more DIY. And before you judge me for caring about status, everybody cares about status. I just knew how to turn the dream into reality. In this moment, I finally felt like I belonged. I spent 17 years meticulously curating the perfect life. And now that I had it, nobody was going to take it away from me.”
Of course, Camila’s complacence is shattered swiftly when she sends an explicit video of herself to her boyfriend Max (the ‘golden boy’ of the school, born to rich, white, politically influential parents) and it gets leaked, forwarded to pretty much the entire student body of Rosewell. After her reputation lies in tatters, her erstwhile friends, including her best friend Tara (Alisha Boe) stop talking to her. When she returns to school after the break, she sees that Tara and Max are now a couple and Max, in a staggeringly douche-y move, has started a club in the school, called “The Cis Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League” (the film is full of gags like these, which poke fun at these superficial, paper-thin appropriations of social justice vocabulary).
Clearly, revenge is in the offing and Camila soon finds the perfect conduit in Eleanor (Maya Hawke), a queer transfer student who has also undergone a public shaming of her own; a Rosewell student called Carissa had spread the rumour that Eleanor forced herself upon her. Camila and Eleanor decide to exact each other’s vengeance, so that they don’t have to face the consequences of either sabotage.
It’s a super-fun, very contemporary take on the classic 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie Strangers on a Train, itself based on the 1950 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name. In that story, two men decide to solve each other’s problems via murder: one man has an adulterous wife, the other a domineering father. Do Revenge is merely the latest in a long line of films and TV shows inspired by this vintage Hitchcock movie.
It is also, however, very much its own beast in terms of style and presentation, not to mention the whip-smart dialogue. During a sequence where Drea and Eleanor are talking about how to accomplish their goals, Drea remarks that it’s Eleanor who has the tougher task because her target is a man. The conversation is taking place in a store even as Drea is picking out new clothes for Eleanor.
“Oh honey, it’s much easier to destroy a girl. Take your pick: slut-shame her, turn her friends against her, prey on her vanity, turn her into a troll, exploit her darkest secrets. Make her radioactive and no one will help her. (…) Now dudes, that’s a different story. For dudes, our bodies, our choices, our thoughts are all policed by shame. Our weaknesses are their strengths. If they have a lot of sex, they’re crushing it. If we do it, we’re sluts. If they’re angry they’re powerful, but if we show any emotion, we’re hysterical!”
At that last bit, the store attendant actually asks Drea to use “indoor voices” which is an excellent way to end this line and prove Drea’s point at the same time. Deft touches like this elevate the already-kinetic action that marks Do Revenge. The film is also surprisingly poignant and steeped in un-ironic sincerity at times. Like the moment when Drea tells Eleanor that dissociation has become like second nature for her. “My entire life I’ve been a chameleon. Sometimes you have to pretend to be someone else to get what you want.”
It’s difficult to overstate the towering influence of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. In terms of its themes, performances and visual style, the film remains one of the masterpieces of the 20th century, inspiring a wide cross-section of Hollywood creators. In his essay on the movie, the iconic critic Roger Ebert wrote:
“Hitchcock was above all the master of great visual set pieces, and there are several famous sequences in Strangers on a Train. Best known is the one where Guy scans the crowd at a tennis match and observes that all of the heads are swivelling back and forth to follow the game — except for one head, Bruno’s, which is looking straight ahead at Guy. (The same technique was used in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent where all the windmills rotate in the same direction; except one.) Another effective scene shows Guy floating in a little boat through the Tunnel of Love at a carnival; Miriam and two boyfriends are in the boat ahead, and shadows on the wall make it appear Bruno has overtaken them.
Sabrina Barton, in her 1991 essay “Crisscross: Paranoia and Projection in Strangers on a Train” (published in the journal Camera Obscura), details how homosexual attraction and the idea of “the double” influenced Hitchcock’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel. Highsmith, of course, was a lesbian who was famously often in love with straight women and this undeclared homosexual attraction informed many of her famous works, like The Talented Mr Ripley. Barton writes,
“When Bruno, voicing Guy’s desire to be free from Miriam, proposes over lambchops that they “swap murders . . . criss-cross” (the deal would be that Bruno murder Guy’s lower-class, blackmailing wife in exchange for Guy murdering Bruno’s domineering father), Bruno’s proposition narrativizes the symmetrical relation between the two men textually inscribed by the opening crosscutting (“crisscross”). The homosexual valence of this symmetry is emphasized by Bruno’s quick exclamation at their first meeting, “I like you-I’d do anything for you!” A profusion of doubling motifs crops up during their encounter including Guy’s tennis doubles, Guy’s “bigamy” joke, Bruno’s drink order (“scotch and plain water: a pair-doubles”), the pair of crisscrossed tennis rackets on Guy’s lighter, all reinforcing the linkage of the two men by inviting us to read Bruno Anthony as Guy Haines’s double.”
This concept of the two main characters being doubles—either complementary individuals or doppelgangers—is front and centre in Do Revenge. Drea is Hispanic while Eleanor is white, Drea is straight while Eleanor is gay, Drea is self-centred while Eleanor is compassionate. Even their clothes are carefully chosen to be ‘opposites’, thematically. Often, we see Eleanor dressed up in exaggeratedly girly clothes just so we see the contrast between her and Eleanor’s more practical, ‘masculine-coded’ denim dungarees.
In 1987, Danny DeVito directed and starred in Throw Momma from the Train, an acclaimed black comedy starring DeVito himself alongside Billy Crystal and Anne Ramsey. The story was a loose retelling of Strangers on a Train, filtered through the lens of Crystal and DeVito’s formidable comic talents. A much more faithful recreation of Hitchcock and Highsmith’s story is in an episode from the second season of the police procedural dramedy Castle, called ‘The Double Down’. Here, too, the ‘double’ made its presence felt: one man was white, the other Black, one is a white-collar worker while the other struggles to make a living. Even one of the victims was related to the doubles theme — she’s a couples’ therapist.
It’s worthwhile to remember that the two men at the heart of Hitchcock and Highsmith’s story are full-grown, middle-aged people who are set in their ways. On the other hand, Do Revenge’s central characters are 17-year-olds, people who have a lot of living and learning to do yet. So, it was crucial that the story left plenty of breathing space for both Drea and Eleanor to second-guess themselves, take a step back and re-evaluate their intentions.
Luckily, Do Revenge gets this and most other aspects of the Hitchcock-inspiration absolutely right. Powered by blockbuster performances by Camila Mendes and Maya Hawke (whose second half heel turn is downright chilling), this is a teen movie that’s ambitious without losing its sense of fun, hyper-aware without trying too hard. It’s one of the best things Netflix has released all year and it’s a virtual guarantee that they will greenlight a sequel one of these days; the fact of its excellence is that obvious.