Senior Year, the Netflix film. Not my senior year. Although now that I think about it…
The plot is familiar, if not a bit odd. Rebel Wilson plays Stephanie: a 37-year-old woman who wakes up from a 20-year coma, and decides to go back to high school to finish her senior year. The expected high school/waking-up-from-a-coma tropes abound—mean girls, popularity, cheerleading, prom, navigating a new world, discovering the value of oneself, true friendship, learning what you want out of life, blah, blah, blah.
As a typical teen movie about prom and popularity, this film succeeds. What makes it weird is the way Wilson’s character handles the 20-year coma part. While it makes sense that Stephanie would act like a 17-year-old girl, what doesn’t make sense is how accepting she was of her new reality. I don’t know about other people, but if I had just woken up from a 20-year coma after formally being a 17-year-old high school student, I would freak out. And that’s what I think this film was missing: a good old-fashioned freak out.
The film’s formula is easy to follow and it’s comedic timing is actually one of its’ saving graces. Angourie Rice (Spider-Man, Mare of Easttown) captures Rebel Wilson’s sarcastic and deadpan humor to a T. Her spunky performance as popularity obsessed, teenaged Steph is fun to watch, and the transfer to Rebel as popularity obsessed, adult Steph is believable and effortless. Sam Richardson (Veep, The Afterparty) as Steph’s childhood best friend is delightful to watch and provides some much-needed sanity to this over-the-top plot.
Steph’s ultimate goal of course is to win prom queen at Harding High School. She is horrified to find that her friend Martha (Mary Holland; Happiest Season, New Girl), now the school’s principal, has done away with the outdated, heteronormative, toxic traditions once associated with the quintessential high school experience. Gone are the days of sexy cheerleading, cliques, the cool table, and prom king and queen.
This is a minor setback for Stephanie, who quickly adapts to the social rules of the time, becoming a small influencer to gain some clout and leverage her new following to convince the school’s most influential student—Bri Loves (Jade Bender) —to petition for the reinstatement of prom king and queen. The madness that follows is entertaining, and at times, awkward. The exaggerated portrayal of Gen Z is surprisingly comical, and there isn’t a war between the two generations, which is refreshing. Gen Z isn’t shown as being better than millennials, and millennials aren’t shown as being worse. The two come together and learn from one another, and yes, hilarious misunderstandings and silly antics occur.
Representation in this film is pretty good, but there are some characters I wish were developed more. For example, Stephanie’s best friend, Seth, is a geeky kid who harbors a secret crush on her and appears to be one of the only black people in town. Jump forward 20 years and the make-up of this suburban town has changed significantly: the current students of Harding High reflect the growing diversity of newer generations. And the diversity isn’t forced or out-of-place. All of this is good and makes sense. I just wish we saw more of Seth’s perspective.
In addition to Seth, Stephanie’s other friend, Martha, was a character that had the opportunity to play a bigger role as far as representation is concerned. It is revealed later in the film that Martha made so many changes to the culture of their school because she was a member of the LGBTQ community and never felt welcome. While this is a positive for the story, I would have liked to see more of her character, and a stronger coming together moment between her and Steph.
The emotional aspects of this film were a bit toned-down. I guess it is to be expected for a comedy, but I felt they could have done so much more with all the diverse talent in their hands. The 90’s and 2000's nostalgia brought a lot of charm to the plot, but I feel as though Steph should have had a bigger reckoning with both her past and present. There was never really a moment where Steph broke down—and this made a lot of self-realization scenes fall flat. Steph did not grow enough throughout the movie, making her triumphant moments at prom and graduation feel a bit…unearned. In order to obtain an emotional payoff, there has to be real stakes. Steph’s bubbly personality worked, but she needed more depth for us to feel invested.
Senior Year had all the makings to be a great, inclusive, satirical comedy: talented and diverse cast, simple and amusing plot, endless tropes to explore, good chemistry between actors, and a budget to get it there. To my disappointment, Senior Year just didn’t hit the mark as precisely as it should have. While I maintain positive associations with the film (mostly due to the sheer amount of nostalgia the film leaned too heavily on), and there are some moments of comedic gold, Senior Year did not have enough credits to graduate in my book.