High school’s rough. Even for someone who’s a teenage assassin. At least, that’s the idea behind Barely Lethal, a comedy/action hybrid about a girl known as “83” (Hailee Steinfeld) who’s spent her life training at Prescott, a facility that turns orphaned girls into elite assassins. Even though the girls are ordered to not form attachments by their leader, Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson), Megan finds that she doesn’t want to be an assassin. Even though she’s the top student in her program, she’d much rather be a normal kid. Solution: when an opportunity arises, she fakes her death and poses as “Megan,” a foreign exchange student in suburbia.
Barely Lethal wants to be a lot of things. It wants to be a high school comedy classic, in the vein of Mean Girls and Clueless (both of which are referenced, among many others), while also turning clichés from those films on their head, like 21 Jump Street. Throw in some kick-ass student training, like this year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, and wrap around the entire story a young girl who wants to be normal, and you have the gist of the film. It’s…a mess. Tonally, the film jerks between snark and sincerity, with no sense of balance coming from either end.
Most of the cast fails to elevate the material here. Hailee Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for True Grit, comes across as too eager to jump into her new surroundings, but the fit is more awkward than the role requires, in a way that’s similar to her supporting role in Pitch Perfect 2. She seems to require an invested co-star in order to work with the character. Fortunately, a few do seem invested: the geeky boy she befriends (Thomas Mann), as well as Megan’s host family – recent divorcee Mrs. Larson (Rachael Harris), annoyed daughter Liz (Dove Cameron) and spastic son Parker (Jason Ian Drucker). But the higher-profile talent, including Jackson, Jessica Alba as villainess Victoria Knox, and Sophie Turner as Megan’s rival Heather, all seem to be cashing in a paycheck.
The story doesn’t help. Those knowing references to popular films fail to make any parts of the film seem fresh or vital. The film also goes overboard in making Megan a fish out of water, pushing her into stupidity at times. The spy elements could have added some spice to the film, but director Kyle Newman adds no real flash to those parts of the story. It all just melds together into a mediocre product, with an apparent goal of boring minds into nothingness. There’s the lethal element of the film for you.