Every now and then, along comes a film that feels as though they shot the first draft of the script. The concept is sound, but it's been underdeveloped, a bit more work was needed before the cameras starte rolling. Barely Lethal is one such film.
The concept here is solid, and potentially a whole lot of fun. There is a secret academy called the Prescott School for Girls, which takes orphaned girls and turns them into highly-skilled secret agents. Cue cliched but fun scenes of little girls running around with really BIG guns, undergoing ninja training, blowing shit up, driving fast cars and destroying mannequins with flamethrowers. And it's all made much more fun by the fact that the man who runs the show and trains these little girls is none other than the wonderful Mr Samuel L Jackson himself, playing a character named Hardman.
Flash forward and we meet Agent 83 (Steinfeld), now aged 16 and the most highly-skilled girl at the school. But 83 longs for a normal life – family, friends, high school, parties, boys and the prom. On a mission to catch American expat turned arms dealer Victoria Knox (Alba) in Chechnya, 83 fakes her own death and disappears, resurfacing in Newton USA (new town, get it?) as Canadian exchange student Megan Walsh. She takes up resident with a host family, the Larsons, and settles down to a regular, comfortable suburban life – but socially-awkward Megan soon learns that real-life high school is not quite as it seems in Mean Girls, Clueless, 90210 and Bring It On.
Barely Lethal has a killer premise, but it fails to live up to its potential. A school that turns cute little girls into deadly assassins? Hell yes, that's a concept rich with potential. But after a strong opening act, the film becomes a typical high-school flick, with all the usual teen traumas that entails. It doesn't really fall into either camp, and the scipt certainly feels undercooked. It's all quite safe and PG – Jackson doesn't say fuck once – and lacks the harder, grittier edge of films such as Kick-Ass or Heathers, which would have made it much more interesting. And let's not look too closely at the plotholes and inconsistencies – such as, just how did Megan make her way all the way from Russia back to the US?
The performances are all fine, as you'd expect from a cast of this quality. Steinfeld is a terrific talent, but here she is never really asked to extend herself, so she cruises along nicely in a fairly undemanding role, while Jackson and Alba are almost criminally underused. Alba especially is wonderful, clearly relishing the bad-girl role and having an absolute ball. She really should play villains more often – she's superb at it. But the big find here is Cameron as Liz, the teenaged daughter of the host family that Megan stays with. She lights up the screen, and steals every scene she's in - such a natural, gifted performer. Actually, the film would have been been very different – and possibly a lot better – if she and Steinfeld had switched parts.
Barely Lethal has a great cast and a premise that it wastes somewhat, although there is the occasional gem of a laugh-out-loud line (just not enough of them). It's entertaining enough for what it is, but D'Arco's somewhat uneven screenplay really could have done with a lot more development, and a few more rewrites (as well as more decent jokes). Here's hoping that the eventual remake gets it right.