“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” wrote William Faulkner. And for all the common wisdom that public school — high school in particular — is terrible for everybody, some kids do get it worse than others. And some kids really are sadists.
In You Again Joanna (Odette Yustman) was that sadist to Marni (Kristen Bell). And in her own way, coincidentally, Marni’s mother Gail was the one twisting the knife for Joanna’s aunt Ramona (Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver, respectively). And now Joanna’s marrying Marni’s brother Will (James Wolk) which brings everyone crashing back together. Cue hijinx.
Someone involved in making this movie was on the receiving end back in school. I don’t mean they did something stupid and got a nickname they never could live down until they left for college. I mean they got the full blast of a decade’s worth of emotional and possibly physical abuse — the sort of thing Mark Chu-Carroll wrote about. It’s not just the usual revenge/reconciliation fantasy, although there’s a lot of that in there as well; someone involved knew exactly what they were talking about.
There’s something about being on the very bottom that the great masses in the middle can never quite seem to wrap their heads around. Below a certain level kids aren’t just humiliated, they’re depersonalized. Partly this is the usual Genovese syndrome, where it’s easier to ignore what’s right in front of you than admit that you have any duty to stop it; but partly it’s that kids are better than we usually give them credit for in hiding their actions. Even teachers I know who live their entire lives around kids this age seem to have no idea what horrors are going on around them. And the victims quickly learn that if they even try to speak up they’ll be told they’re overreacting. They’ll be told by peers and administration alike that they bring the mockery upon themselves; they must have provoked the other kid into throwing them headfirst into a cinder-block wall; whatever happens to them, they probably deserve it. It’s easier than actually defending the victim.
And in the peak of its dramatic arc, You Again provides the fantasy that no similar movie has struck upon yet: validation. It gives everyone incontrovertible proof that this is something that actually happened, and that Marni hasn’t been making things up in hindsight. And in the denouement it delivers what sound more like actual apologies, regrets, and reconciliation than other movies come up with. It’s exactly the sort of validation and repersonalization that real survivors long for, but at best give up hope of ever finding.
On the other hand, Gail and Ramona in their contrapuntal arc show us that even among friends in high school the currency is shame and backstabbing. If this weekend is the sequel to the horror movie of high school, no better actresses could be picked but Curtis and Weaver. I’m surprised that it took thirty years to get these two together, but their chemistry together was wonderful. If nothing else comes from You Again, maybe some enterprising producer will put these two together in center stage instead of the sidelines next time.
Worth it: yes, if you like screwball comedies or need some catharsis of your own.
Bechdel test: pass.