Netflix just dropped He’s All That, a teen romcom about beauty influencer Padgett Sawyer (played by real-life influencer Addison Rae) who makes a bet she can turn hopeless misanthrope/photographer Cameron Kweller (Tanner Buchanan) into prom king by the magical powers of popularity adjacency (and of course, a makeover). It’s a gender-swapped remake of 1999’s She’s All That, about shallow jock Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) who makes a bet that he can turn hopeless nerd/art student Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook) into prom queen by the magical powers of popularity adjacency (and, of course, a makeover). Even though the remake is a perfectly entertaining watch that has many of the same pitfalls and pleasures as the original, early reviews from critics—many of them Millennials—suggest otherwise.
Variety says it “rankles rather than reinvents”; Washington Post says it’s “not all that” and “not even a little bit of that”; the New York Times writes that it’s “much ado about nothing.” They all contend it lacks the quirky charms of the original, and some reviewers are really irritated by the decision to make Cameron’s photography hobby using actual film some misfit signifier of cool. One exception is Hollywood Reporters’ Robyn Bahr, who notes that loving the original at age ten is no reason to dislike the remake today. “Both films are silly fun,” Bahr writes. “Some might not like the newest one simply because it’s not ‘theirs.’”
What gives? Well, Millennial nostalgia is what, and it won’t stop giving. While all generations are guilty of clinging to nostalgia for a time that probably wasn’t as great as they’d like to pretend it was, Millennials have been particularly fierce in their insistence that whatever they liked as a young person is the high point of all culture of the era. They dominate media conversations about the ’90s, which is why all the listicles are about Beanie Babies and Gushers. But they also think they’re the reason vinyl is cool, and have even admitted to nostalgic ownership of things that objectively don’t belong to them.
Millennial writer Drew Millard confessed to this earlier this month in a piece at Vice, noting that his demographic tends to generationally claim the things that were cool when they were young adults in the 2000s, even if those things predated them. “Back in my day, every band felt like they were our band, even the ones like Radiohead or the White Stripes that had been around for a while and were technically Gen X-ers,” he wrote.
This likely explains the hate being shoveled on He’s All That: It was supposed to be for them, just like the original, yet it failed to deliver on the pristine rush of ’90s nostalgia those critics were looking for. What’s weirder still is that in the process, She’s All That has suddenly become the Citizen Kane of teen comedies. She’s All That was charming, but never that good in the first place. The late ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s had already given us standouts like Heathers and Clueless, and high school shows like My So-Called Life offering far better humor, deeper insights, and greater teen complexity. And 1999 in particular offered an embarrassment of extraordinary teen genre romps (Election, Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You) that make this Pygmalion CliffsNotes look like From Justin to Kelly. She’s All That always had big platform shoes to fill, and while it made its mark, it could only hope to get an after-party invite to the legacy of its predecessors.
For what it’s worth, critics at many of these same publications weren’t thrilled with the original either. In 1999, the NYT said viewers would wish She’s All That “were much funnier and bolder than it turns out to be.” WaPo said that for a genre “not known for narrative surprise,” that “what makes it palatable is wacky stuff between clunky story points,” like that infamous pubes-on-pizza scene or Zack’s hacky sack “performance art.” Roger Ebert gave it points for fun in the margins, but said it seemed as “bored with the underlying plot as we are.” Variety said it seemed written by “a team of septuagenarians,” even though the screenwriter R. Lee Fleming Jr.—who also penned the remake—was in his late 20s when the original came out.
What’s interesting about this film’s contemporary critics is that they aren’t the old white guys of yore, who could be counted on to sneer at a genre intended for teen girls and women. Instead, they’re Millennials reordering the world to their taste. That’s largely a rising tide that has lifted pop culture’s boat, but maybe it’s time we concede this generational retcon comes with its own faulty, selective embroidering of reality, just like every generation’s does.
She’s All That is a perfectly enjoyable teen comedy. It’s a ’90s time capsule featuring a surprisingly fun dance scene, metallic makeup and chokers, ’90s dresses and platform shoes, and an incredible batch of actors in small parts, most of whom would add some real pizazz to the enterprise and go on to do better, including Debbi Morgan, Lil’ Kim, Kieran Culkin, Gabrielle Union, Anna Paquin, Usher, and Paul Walker (RIP).
I saw She’s All That in my early 20s, and rewatching it now to compare it to the remake, I had a flood of nostalgia too, because I was the same age as these actors, and not that far out of high school myself. But I was also reminded how sexist and cliched it was, and not nearly enough of a departure from the Porkys, Animal Houses, and Can’t Buy Me Loves of the ’80s. Racks are casually rated, homophobia is a punchline, and nailing as many chicks as possible is the goal. And we are actually expected to believe that Laney is some kind of uggo until she removes her glasses. Even the idea that Laney is an “artist,” with her cut-rate Basquiats, paint-splattered Docs, and casual references to suffering in Mogadishu, is laughable.
The resolutions of both films peddle the ridiculous notion that, deep down, all teenagers really want to be popular and that being an outcast is just a coping mechanism fueled by loss or insecurity.
But He’s All That is also a perfectly enjoyable teen comedy, and elevates a few issues the original wasn’t self-aware enough to ditch. Here, social media is casually rated, being poor is a punchline, and getting as many followers as possible is the goal. It’s far more inclusive, and by placing a guy as the object of makeover mania, He’s All That largely sidesteps the sleaziness of the original. Padgett may be pushy about getting time with Cameron in the service of her bet, but she isn’t the full-on stalker Zack was. She has a far better motive than Zack did for needing to make the bet, too, as opposed to merely doubling down on a dumb jock challenge. Plus, Cameron (actor Tanner Buchanan was a highlight in Cobra Kai) is given far more airtime to express his hatred of the status quo, making it look like more of a fully conceived life philosophy compared to Laney’s vague angst. Still, we’re actually expected to believe he’s some kind of uggo until he cuts his hair and puts on a suit.
That’s a limitation neither film can overcome. The premise is a tiresome only-in-movies trope—the notion that teens are “betting” on conferring coolness with the wave of a magic wand. The resolutions of both films peddle the ridiculous notion that, deep down, all teenagers really want to be popular, even the misfits, and that being an outcast is never a deliberate rejection of the mainstream, just a coping mechanism fueled by loss or insecurity. Most of all, it asks us to believe young people who are polar opposites ever end up together, as if the clash of values evident in teen cliques is as superficial as a GG Allin T-shirt or glued-on eyelashes.
I would think Millennials would applaud the contemporary corrective He’s All That attempts within such constraints, even if those contemporary updates no longer speak to Millennial lives. But that’s the natural order of things. The youngest Millennial is a few years out of high school, but the oldest Gen Z kid is still squarely entrenched in the shit—and it’s clear that is who this film was for. So maybe it’s time we passed the torch to them. And while they’re at it, Millennials should go ahead and buy some real film for that vintage camera sitting next to the neon cactus. Gen Z is already doing it, and just like middle parts, we’re going to have to start taking cues from them sooner or later.
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