The spirit of sparky high school comedies, from Never Been Kissed to Mean Girls to Easy A, haunts Netflix’s junky “if you like…” offering Senior Year, with a progressively deafening reminder of what came before. For where those films had charm, wit and vim, this has a stultifying absence instead, a disappointing and derivative two-hour slog down memory lane.
It at least looks like the movies it desperately wants to be grouped together with, a quick tip-off to its origins, made by Paramount before being off-loaded to Netflix. British director Alex Hardcastle, best known for sitcom work, does an impressive job of fooling us into thinking we’re in safe hands with a slick and poppy aesthetic before the script, from Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli and actor Brandon Scott Jones, reminds us that we’re very much not, the loosely familiar framework of a sturdy studio comedy crumbling with every ill-advised decision made. The illest of all is the choice to cast Rebel Wilson in the lead, an often adept comic performer who works best as quippy support (funny in both Bridesmaids and 2015’s underrated How to Be Single) but who often struggles in the more substantive spotlight (patchy in 2019’s rom-com spoof Isn’t It Romantic).
She’s handed a very specific acting challenge here that demands more than she can really give, playing a woman waking up from a 20-year coma after a cheerleading accident at school. She might look 37 but she’s got the mind of a 17-year-old (there’s a knotty psychodrama that could have grown out of this premise) and so her every move must reflect this confusing discordance.
Before her lies great examples of actors who have effortlessly managed something similar, from Jennifer Garner in 13 Going on 30 or Tom Hanks in Big or more recently a surprisingly textured Vince Vaughn in Freaky, but a miscast Wilson never convinces as someone figuring out the intricacies of a new body and new life, a simple, surface-level performance not helped by a script that also doesn’t fully grapple with the actual day-to-day details or genuine comedy of such a surreal experience. Instead it’s mere montage fodder – confusing Lady Gaga for Madonna, learning how to use Instagram, insisting on a Real World: New Orleans prom theme – and so cloying late-stage sentiment, of which there is a lot, is markedly ineffective.
There’s proven comic mileage in comparing the nature of high school life then and now, something 21 Jump Street handled well, the leads forced to reconfigure their ideas of popularity and how to wear a backpack. But here it’s all far too broad with the film’s over-egged vision of kombucha-drinking mini-activists who embrace their gender fluidity while trying to combat climate change feeling lazy and a little too mean-spirited, as if they were all written with an exhausted eye-roll. The adult characters don’t fare that well either although there are enthusiastic turns from Sam Richardson as the old friend with a crush, Happiest Season breakout Mary Holland as the BFF-turned-principal, Justin Hartley as the old jock boyfriend and Zoe Chao trying to wring laughs from some frustratingly un-spiky dialogue as the bitter ex-queen bee. But despite the bloated runtime, the script still doesn’t find enough time to flesh out any of these dynamics, each missing a handful of vital beats.
Tonally, it’s all over the place, that aforementioned sap curdled together with Wilson’s trademark crudeness, an R-rated comedy that wants to be both sweet and salty, a balance it never manages to perfect. So dick size jokes and wearied putdowns like butt slut crash up against asinine Live Laugh Love life lessons like “why fit in when you can stand out?” and “the perfect life online means nothing when you’re miserable in real life”, the film resembling a goody two shoes kid who just learned a dirty word.
The film’s aggressive overload of nostalgia, squarely targeted at a thirtysomething audience, is best summarised by a sequence where Wilson’s character lovingly re-enacts the video to Britney’s 1999 hit (You Drive Me) Crazy. There’s no attempt to add any real humour or any kind of inventive spin to the performance, it just … is. That scene, and the film’s use of pop culture in general, recalls Charles Bramesco’s incisive review of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, where he noted “a peculiar breed of fan more interested in identifying objects than what’s done with them”. For those who take pleasure in the performative act of pointing and nodding to show they know what that song or TV show reference is then, there’s plenty here to annoy whomever you’re trying to impress, others who demand a little more might feel short-changed. It’s also indicative of a certain brand of tiresome comedy where we’re expected to have fun simply because those on screen seem to be but it’s simply not enough and the ending, with two frenetic musical dance numbers, similarly fails to have the contagious effect the makers seem to think it does.
Senior Year might get a passing grade for sheer energy but for everything else, it’s a fail.