Do Revenge movie review: Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke impress in black comedy inspired by Hitchcockian noir

The film is a teen revenge drama set against the backdrop of high school shaming and ostracising.

Vinayak Chakravorty September 19, 2022 08:45:18 IST

3/5

Do Revenge borrows its core idea from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, and reimagines the plot in a teenybopper milieu that roughly crosses Clueless with John Tucker Must Die. The black comedy, which actually doesn’t miss a chance to take a jibe at its rather odd title, has sassy new-age characters and lingo buoying the Hitchcockian noir vibes even as its narrative gives passing nods to issues such as inclusivity, gender bias and teenage angst.

High school life can be scary with its scheming, shaming and ostracising, and writer-director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson manages to capture that essence through her teen revenge drama. Hollywood has explored the formula in the past — notably in films such as Heathers, Cruel Intentions and Mean Girls. Robinson avoids attempting any drastic departure from what has worked within the genre over the decades, and her focus remains on setting up a taut story with engaging twists. She succeeds in creating an all-out entertainer that also justifies including the issues it focusses on, although the film never really rises above generic tropes.

Robinson and co-writer Celeste Ballard pen a twin revenge plot around the film’s protagonists, Drea (Camila Mendes) and Eleanor (Maya Hawke). Drea, a popular girl in the campus, suddenly becomes the school outcast after her boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams) leaks a sex tape of her. There is no evidence that Max did it, so he goes scot-free. Worse, Drea ends up drawing the wrath of the headmaster (onetime teenybopper star Sarah Michelle Gellar in a delightful cameo) for slapping Max in public out of disgust and rage. Eleanor, on the other hand, has just transferred to the school, and is normally an awkward misfit. She is shocked to discover her onetime tormentor Carissa (Ava Capri) is in the same school. Carissa had outed Eleanor after the two girls spent time together at a summer camp when they were 13, and had spread a malicious rumour suggesting the latter was a sexual predator. The two girls develop a bond despite their disparate personas, driven by an urge for vengeance. Since executing a direct plan of action seems difficult, they decide to “do revenge” on each other’s tormentors. On cue, Eleanor sets out to infiltrate the playboy Max’s circle in a bid to expose him. Drea on the other hand joins Carissa’s school garden community.

Much of the film’s appeal lies in the characterisation of Drea and Eleanor, and the buddy bonding chemistry the script draws up for them. Eleanor, a loner, keeps a garden lizard named Oscar Winner Olivia Colman as her pet. When Drea is curious about the choice of pet, Eleanor is wittily caustic in her explanation: “My therapist told me to get a puppy but I prefer to keep my companions thick-skinned and cold-blooded.” Maya Hawke, daughter of Hollywood stars Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, is effortless in bringing alive the character. Camila Mendes channels a lot of the wicked vibes that has made her role of Veronica Lodge in Riverdale a smash hit. She renders a sexy edge to Drea that makes her seem alluring and gullible at the same time. The film, incidentally, was initially titled Strangers. Watching how the equation between Drea and Eleanor develops and ends up beyond their revenge agenda, you get a feeling that might have been an apt name for the film

The storyline, though, is not merely about a couple of open-and-shut revenge tales. Writers Robinson and Ballard give a wicked spin to delectably complicate things in the final portion of the drama, opening up the scope for a deeper context. As the story progresses, you realise there are no outright nice guys here even as the plot of revenge starts becoming more twisted than it seemed to begin with. In the process, as the screenplay hints the two victims could be sociopaths of sorts, and tries to be furnish logic for their behaviour, things threaten to fly out of control before Robinson manages to bring the narrative back on track for a predictable ending.

The success of Robinson and Ballard’s writing lies in the humour with which they balance the vintage Hollywood style of narrating a teenybopper flick with the very contemporary campus culture they set up through the characters. Robinson, who was associated with the scripting of Thor: Love And Thunder, is certainly at home with creating funny lines that convey more than humour. “I’m Frankenstein and you’re Frankenstein’s Bad B*tch,” erstwhile alpha girl Drea tells the introvert Eleanor as she grooms the latter for the all-important first encounter with Max. Campus heartthrob Max has two-timed almost every girl he knows but he is brazenly hypocritical enough to establish The Cis Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League in school. The film keeps such ironic humour coming in, as a regular quota of twists props the suspense.

Robinson’s use of music is interesting. The film’s soundtrack gives space to classic acts as Hole, Fatboy Slim and Meredith Brooks alongside Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. Music formed the thematic crux of Robinson’s earlier film, Someone Great, too, and in Do Revenge, the filmmaker uses music significantly to define the varying moods of the narrative. The use of nineties hits gels with teenybopper nostalgia as youngsters in flashy designer outfits party hard or simply stroll around in their upmarket Miami high school campus.

There are the familiar warts, though, in Robinson’s storytelling. Almost in sync with time tested Hollywood cliches, Drea is preparing to go to Yale (although she looks far from it). The now on, now off relationship she develops with schoolmate Russ (Rish Shah) is all too sketchy. It is almost as if the character of Russ was forced into the screenplay because the heroine being the gorgeous Camila Mendes, she needed a romantic track with a handsome hunk.

Maybe, writers Robinson and Ballard could have managed with a shorter screen time. Otherwise enjoyable fare, Do Revenge certainly looks like it could have done with at least 20 minutes lesser than its 118-minute runtime.

Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist, and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.

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