Some of the best high school movies have been specifically about the archetypal ‘popular girls’ and the inner workings of their squad, but very few have willfully explored these characters beyond the one-dimensional traits that make them either background antagonists or slasher flick fodder. From Heathers’s viciously ‘dog eat dog’ depiction of high school cliques, Clueless’s use of the student population as a glorified socioeconomic caste system to Mean Girls’s telling us that high school, and even greater reality is little more than a chaotic animal kingdom, power and how the protagonists manage it is the common thread between all three that not only gives these overlooked folks greater depth, but also that we tend to gloss over in other pictures, possibly because high school drama is something we progressively realize as inconsequential the further we’re removed from it.
But when many view high school as the first genuine opportunity to establish themselves, power isn’t the only name of the game. Sure, you can rise to the top of the food chain, but what does it mean and how long will it last if you have no influence? That’s what the two protagonists of Tyler MacIntyre’s teen horror-comedy satire Tragedy Girls are aiming for; power is merely a byproduct of their efforts to defend. How appropriate it is, then, that these girls, McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand), darkly mimic social media ‘influencers’ in their public appearances while they silently slash their way to pop culture stardom?
Though, while most movie popular girls deal with losing their influence as their narrative arcs, McKayla and Sadie are in the interesting position of being relatively popular girls on the cusp of further greatness, and then must learn how to manage and maintain their ever-rising status without distrusting each other. Though while this thematic undercurrent of power is inherent to the narrative territory co-writers MacIntyre and Chris Lee Hill cover, and it’s interesting watching the two do something different with the story in this regard, conversations about power and influence related to the high school experience are secondary, arguably tertiary to Tragedy Girls’s ultimate ambitions. Perhaps you could connect ‘power’ to other recurring themes with some faint connection to the primary point – that the younger generation often feels undeservedly disregarded and patronized by their elders, as well as how women often feel the same way by men – but there’s something more acerbic and (ahem) cutting underneath.
Before I dive into the meat of this review, I may as well state that this is just my interpretation of MacIntyre and Hill’s aims, and any other claims any of you may have about any explicit, implicit or symptomatic readings are no less legitimate. Also, the film isn’t without its flaws. Though McKayla and Sadie are fun to watch throughout, thanks to some solid turns from Shipp and Hildebrand, the narrative doesn’t take enough time to develop them beyond how we see them from the opening scene onward, seemingly at the expense of enriching the commentary. The pitch-black laughs don’t always land as perfectly as we’d like, often registering as amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, and in spite of some lively creativity coming in the narrative’s opening act, the rest of the film perhaps uses convention more liberally than it ought to as a genre sendup, slightly dulling the experience by inserting many familiar beats.
With all of that said, Tragedy Girls is an unexpectedly dense satire of social media culture and postmodernism that goes down like a turbulent mixture of Heathers and Scream that could have only existed now for multiple reasons – also, let’s not forget its propensity for Amy Heckerling’s pop-sensitive dialogue style. It’s not just that social media and technology’s prominent role in the proceedings makes it a decidedly millennial-focused project, or that manipulative and murderous, yet relatable women is a side of representation we’ve hardly ever seen, but in a post-Columbine, post-Virginia Tech America, could you imagine any sort of funding for a film about two sociopathic teenagers whose ultimate goal is a mass murder plot against their fellow students – i.e., a good chunk of their true-crime internet blog’s readership?
Who knows, perhaps it could have worked in the growing internet age of the early ‘00s had anyone given such taboo material a chance, but the presence of social media adds an extra layer to MacIntyre and Hill’s interpretation of the digital era that especially emphasizes its pertinence now. To put it briefly, their film represents the cross-section between technological advancement and the subsequently expanded proliferation of knowledge, speaking to how greater awareness and understanding of postmodernism may breed cynicism.
Not only did the rise of YouTube and Vimeo mean creators and academics had another, better outlet for essays regarding film philosophy, history, structure and style, but also the almost-concurrent rise of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter meant greater spreading of said essays. No longer was this information limited to cinephiles or academic/collegiate bubbles; it was available to anyone and everyone, assuming they were interested enough to look for it. No longer could it just be Scream’s Billy Loomis and Stu Macher masterminding their murder plot by looking through horror’s past and taking a few notes; knowledge could come in comparatively bite-sized, more easily digestible and compact forms.
But McKayla and Sadie don’t want to be Billy or Stu; they want to scale deadlier heights, because what better way to get everyone’s attention, not just that of your immediate peers, than by outperforming those who’ve come before you? Not only do they believe they’re better than people like Billy and Stu, or all others who’d rather emulate and unconsciously pay reverence to the past, they act like they are. They talk of their plans in open and banal settings, and spoken genre references – like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – are often used as if to disregard, even insult purveyors, for lack of a better word, of cinematic horror history. Instead, they prop up new extreme works – Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, for example – that fit their sadistically savage savant aspirations. Their presence and persona are emblematic of the confidence and arrogance of modern filmmakers and theorists who’d discount the purist’s approach in favor of the fresh, exciting directions the genre still has yet to go.
But here’s the twist: though they are surprisingly skilled at what they do, that skill doesn’t overshadow the occasional error. They achieve the desired results, but often in spite of overlooking mistakes that could foil their plans, accidentally reaching the finish line in many sequences by way of dumb luck. Their cynical undermining of past horror generations even symbolically comes back to bite them in one crucial plot point, complete with its own unmistakable visual reference that explicitly recalls a certain notorious ‘80s splatter flick and implicitly reminds us of one of Neve Campbell’s lines from Scream 4, namely “Don’t fuck with the original.” But in one darkly poetic moment towards the end, symptomatically, they realize that we validate and venerate the past for a reason, committing a horrific act that can’t help but call back to a classic ‘70s shocker. They haven’t abandoned their postmodern ambitions, but rather allow the past to influence their present and future.
And that’s merely the core of Tragedy Girls’s caustic wit. MacIntyre and Hill additionally use social media and technology to demonstrate how some users may value self-worth based upon the amount of followers/friends they have, the occasional hollowness behind well-intentioned social media campaigns and, though it may be unintentional, in the age of Trump, it is quietly pointed to feature a pair of protagonists whose public role in these developments is to mercilessly control how and where their vaguely populist narrative is told and spread, exploiting mass panic to question long-trusted authorities and voices. Social media platforms are a powerful business tool, and McKayla and Sadie often display their astute acumen in using it.
As far as ‘movies of the moment’ go, Tragedy Girls is one of the most entertainingly bonkers to give millennials, as well as various slasher and high school movie tropes their own serving of humble pie. It’d never get the Academy’s attention, even with that title applying to quite a few of its own nominees, but MacIntyre’s movie is nonetheless worth getting your psychotic teen fix if you’d like yet another companion for Heathers and Scream, because if the film teaches us one particular thing, it’s to avoid and stop underestimating the things and people who can catch you off guard in the worst way.