As Netflix scrambles to stay ahead of its much-documented decline, it is easy to dismiss the onetime streaming behemoth’s abundance of original productions as Hail Mary distress signals. They throw so much optimized content at the increasingly overwhelmed viewer that it is impossible to determine what will truly stick, what films will puncture the noise of algorithmic promotion and bring something new and timely to the screen. After death scrolling the pits of categorized and recommended films, it takes a certain blind faith to press “play” on one that may (or may not) be worth your time. Do Revenge does more than earn the viewer’s time, it rewards them.
The film, directed by Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and co-written by Robinson and Celeste Ballard, amalgamates the sociopolitical commentary of Election with the dark Hitchcockian twists and turns of Strangers on a Train and the timely quintessence of Mean Girls. Do Revenge recapitulates the essence of the teen dramas of the mid-to-late nineties through the progressive and inclusive lens of 2022 to update the genre and make a case for authenticity. Where standoffish-ness and exclusivity previously determined the in-group, inclusivity and alliances now reign supreme.
Camila Mendes (reprising the archetypical role of the teenage “it” girl she portrays in Riverdale) stars as Drea, the alpha-female of her private school’s elite student body. She’s cutthroat and fabulous and the object of desire of every student who falls below her in the social pyramid. That is, until a sex tape, sent privately to her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Max (Austin Abrams), is leaked during the summer between junior and senior year. After she punches Max in front of the student body, blaming him for the transgression, Drea finds herself in unfamiliar waters, suddenly deemed a social pariah; Max has been able to utilize his boundless social and monetary resources to recast himself as the victim, and win the sympathy of Rosehill High (the 1%’s choice private school in Miami) as well as the eccentric principal (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar in a nod to the film’s genre predecessors).
Enter Eleanor (Maya Hawke), a transfer student with an obscure past who befriends Drea before the start of senior year at tennis camp. Recognizing the shame of Drea’s social ostracization—Elanor is gay and recounts a story in which her first crush denied and cruelly outed her—Eleanor proposes they secretly team up and exact each other’s revenge, a narrative device transposed from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Drea agrees and coaches Eleanor throughout her infiltration of Max’s circle while she pursues revenge on the socially fringe student, Carissa, who is culpable for Eleanor’s former suffering. The plot unfolds over the course of the student’s senior year through a series of pranks, betrayals, and battles of authenticity, co-narrated by Drea and Eleanor. Do Revenge delves into the daily concerns of high school students of the highest pedigree (awaiting Ivy League acceptances), as well as the sociopolitical commentary implicit in the microcosm of high school social stratification.
It would have been easy for the film to paint the sides of good and evil along familiar lines: Drea, the female student unjustly painted as the irrational aggressor alongside her gay accomplice in revenge; and Max, the popular, beloved male student at Rosehill High who has everyone wrapped around his finger as the untouchable villain. And while Drea and Eleanor’s aim remains corporeal, the film pinpoints a much larger, less tangible enemy.
Do Revenge attacks the power systems that allow the capitalist patriarchy’s exemption from consequences, thus ascending from the banal to the exceptional. For most of the movie, Max enjoys a sort of carte blanche life of excess. He uses his parent’s vast financial resources and his powerful social circle to promote himself as a champion for women, though Drea and Eleanor understand this to be mere virtue signaling since they have obtained scandalous texts between him and much of the female student body. It isn’t Max that Drea wants to bury, it is the inauthentic virtue signaling that he uses to remain in the public’s good graces. Max is the only cis white heterosexual male in the entire movie, though he is the most outspoken when it comes to causes that suit his needs, equating his own value with the social standing he has achieved through faux acceptance and inclusivity.
To that end, the film is self-aware and smart enough to mold the characteristics of woke culture to both sincere and tongue-in-cheek forms, building upon the films that have come before and adding its own unique self-referentiality 2022-relevant sociopolitical commentary. Do Revenge certainly benefits from being constructed of many forms of diverse characters—whether sexually, socially, or racially—but is simultaneously capable of inverting woke, progressive archetypes and terminology when they are being manipulated by those in power.
Drea and Eleanor form an unlikely alliance (full of twists too enjoyable to spoil here) that aligns with the progressive culture meant to combat the nefarious virtue signaling of the film’s main antagonist while providing a sociopolitical commentary on the circumstances that allowed his rise. Do Revenge seems to tell the viewer that presenting as woke is not as important as authentically living in accordance with progressive and inclusive values.