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Valley Girl (2020)

My friends, there’s a crisis looming, and we can’t afford to delay it any longer: The ’00s sucked.

I defy you to find anyone out there nostalgic for the time and place in which 9/11 was still a freshly gaping wound and Osama bin Laden was still at large. Back when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were rapidly unfurling into the political clusterfuck that we’re still neck-deep in all these years later. A decade of financial ruin, bookended by historic market crashes.

Who the hell wants to go back and relive those days? Aside from the “Lord of the Rings” films, Harry Potter, “Firefly”/Serenity, and Usher’s “Confessions” album, is there any pop culture worth revisiting from the bleak Dubya years? Is there any fashion from the time worth bringing back? Does anyone have any fond period-specific childhood memories in between hiding under their desks for terrorist bombing drills? Who wants to go back to that awkward middle ground when dial-up was getting phased out but we still didn’t have smartphones?

No, there’s basically zero point in making anything that banks on nostalgia for the ’00s, and the ’10s are already looking just as bleak. And this is a huge, huge goddamn problem for a pop culture industry that thrives on nostalgia. The ’80s and ’90s have already been picked clean, such that there’s basically nothing left to say about either period. To say nothing of how jokes and stereotypes of the time have been rendered problematic and offensive after two decades of progressing social protocols.

(Quick reminder: Remember that song “1985” by Bowling for Soup? That song came out in 2004. Over fifteen goddamn years ago!)

And yet, until somebody finds some way of portraying the ’00s in a manner that would make anyone want to relive that godforsaken decade, we’re stuck with more threadbare, shallow, hyper-saccharine, pointless, brainless, bullshit portrayals of the ’80s as boomers and Gen-Xers only wish the period was like. Hence the 2020 remake of Valley Girl.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I came into this with zero first-hand knowledge of the 1983 original film. I’d never even heard of it before this movie came on my radar. It’s apparently got an iconic soundtrack, that’s as much as I know.)

This one comes to us from screenwriter Amy Talkington and director Rachel Lee Goldenberg. So it’s a romantic comedy written and directed by women — not a bad start. But then I look closer and I see that Talkington’s only other feature credit is some indie film from 2006 that nobody saw. What’s worse, Goldenberg cut her teeth directing movies for The Asylum (!!!), before directing the Lifetime movie parody A Deadly Adoption in 2015.

I don’t know whether to cry laughing or scream in existential horror.

When the film opens, we’re immediately introduced to a framing device in which a delinquent teenager (played by Camila Morrone) listens to a story recounted by her mother, played by… Alicia Silverstone. Yes, Clueless is a quintessential ’90s film, but the point is nevertheless made early and emphatically that the filmmakers are banking heavily on nostalgia. This is further compounded after the opening musical number (we’ll get back to that), when Silverstone’s character clearly states in so many words that we’re seeing the story as she remembers it. So we’re told in the most plain and explicit terms that this will be a story about the heightened ’80s MTV aesthetic more in keeping with warped pop culture fantasy than reality.

(Side note: Speaking of recent overblown cinematic tributes to the ’80s, I could swear the opening musical number was shot at the exact same mall used for the first big action sequence of Wonder Woman 1984.)

Anyway, this is the story of Juliet Richman, played as a teenager by Jessica Rothe. She and her friends are rich and vacuous mallrats living in the San Fernando Valley. She’s dating some gorgeous egotistical jock (Mickey, played by the eminently punchable Logan Paul), but she meets and falls in love with Randy (Josh Whitehouse), a punk living in a grungy and worn-down Hollywood district outside the valley… wait a minute.

Is this “Romeo and Juliet”? This is “Romeo and Juliet”. And it’s a jukebox musical with shitty covers of ’80s hit songs we’ve already been hearing for thirty years ad infinitum. And it’s populated by outdated and obnoxious teen movie stereotypes, most particularly the air-headed and helium-voiced “valley girl” stereotype of the title.

Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, this one’s gonna hurt.

It was the cast that suckered me in, really. I love Jessica Rothe, I love Chloe Bennet, I love Judy Greer and Mae Whitman and Randall Park, and it really was great seeing all of them onscreen. Hell, it’s a genuinely delightful surprise to see Alicia Silverstone getting work. And I don’t know who this Josh Whitehouse guy is, but his chemistry with Rothe is on point. It’s just so hard to appreciate anything these actors are doing through all the cotton candy bullshit.

Folks, there’s simply no getting around it: These are exactly the same aggressively obnoxious ’80s cliches you’ve seen a million times before, butchering the plot of what may be the most performed and adapted work in the history of theatre, singing Kidz Bop covers of songs that everyone knows by heart. Either that or the filmmakers are trying to shoehorn bubblegum pop songs into punk rock to fit the mold of Randy and his Hollywood brethren, and it works about as… well, it’s like this in reverse.

At one point, the film throws in “Space Age Love Song” by Flock of Seagulls, one of the most tragically underrated love songs from the era. I so badly wanted to give it points for that, until it was thoroughly ruined with nasal vocals. Jesus wept.

(Side note: For the historians out there, Return of the Jedi and Sally Ride are both explicitly name-dropped, which would put this in the 1982-83 school year. Make of that what you will.)

There’s not a single iota of creativity or novelty or effort anywhere in here. What might be even worse, it really pisses me off to see someone try and adapt or modernize “Romeo and Juliet” without carrying over the death and murder. The play’s first half is a comedy, the second half is a tragedy, and the sudden cataclysmic shift from one to the other is a huge part of what gives the play its everlasting power. And it’s not like death or pathos in a neon-colored ’80s teen comedy couldn’t make for a stellar contrast — Heathers already showed how that could make for a powerful dark comedy. Hell, just look at “West Side Story”, a musical teen-centric “Romeo and Juliet” update that knew how to integrate the romance, violence, and prejudice of the source material into something timely and heartfelt.

The comedy without the tragedy — or vice versa — is just a toothless, mindless, gutless void of a story. It carries over enough of what makes the archetypal plot recognizable and memorable, but it doesn’t carry over anything that makes the story timeless and poignant. It’s a shortcut implemented so the filmmakers don’t have to bother coming up with their own plot. Pathetic.

Of course, what really sucks is that this wasn’t completely unsalvageable. There was a lot of untapped potential in the framing device, for example. This could’ve been a movie that juxtaposed the mother/daughter stories, explicitly showing how teens of the ’80s and ’20s are going through the same shit with different trappings. Moreover, when the filmmakers cut the bullshit and let the characters open up with each other, there are flashes of heartfelt themes about young adults trying to find their place in an overbearing world with too many expectations. Standard stuff for a coming-of-age dramedy, sure, but it works well enough with the premise that the filmmakers could’ve done so much more with it.

The best I can say for Valley Girl (2020) is that it’s harmless. It’s stupid, it’s shallow, it’s loaded with outdated tropes and stereotypes, the musical covers are shit, and there’s not a single original thought in the whole 100-minute running time. Yet the central romantic pairing is strong where it matters, and that counts for a lot. Plus, the cast is wonderful and it looks like they’re having a good time.

More than anything else, the film is a love letter to a decade that’s already gotten more than enough affection. There must be umpteen million other better movies out there paying tribute to the ’80s, to say nothing of the far superior films that actually came out during the time. Not recommended.

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