At one point in "Barely Lethal," a perky teenage special ops agent played by "True Grit's"
It's easy to imagine that the makers of this PG-13 action comedy did the same thing, because their movie borrows every trope while leaving out both the heart and brains that made the characters in those films welcome cinematic companions through high school and beyond.
The second feature from "Fanboys" director Kyle Newman and first for screenwriter John D'Arco, "Barely Lethal" is more a pitch — "La Femme Nikita" meets "Mean Girls," "Hit-Girl" meets "Pretty in Pink" — than an actual movie with fleshed out, rootable characters. The premise, that high school is more perilous than a life of espionage, is witty and full of potential. But Newman makes that case by staging his car chases and fight scenes with as much sense of drama as eighth-period trig.
If not for the too-fancy cast, this movie would seem at home on ABC Family. Instead "Barely Lethal" is getting a nominal release from A24, the plucky distributor behind more innovative, edgier youth-skewing movies such as "Spring Breakers,"
"Barely Lethal" is clearly confused about its intended audience, starting with the icky title, a pun on the porn label that selects and photographs models to emphasize their youth. Get it, girls? You're too young to be a trained killing machine like Jason Bourne or to give him consent. LOL!
Steinfeld's Agent 83 attends a secret government school for training little girls to be assassins, where schoolmaster
Yearning for a life that is less Daniel Craig, more Molly Ringwald, 83 fakes her own death and creates a new identity as foreign exchange student Megan Walsh of Regina, Saskatchewan. Really, 83, you watched "Mean Girls" and you still picked a hometown that rhymes with "vagina"?
Actually, that's sound advice for the cast of young women here, who are appealing and capable but woefully underused. Great teen movies serve a function higher than entertainment — they remind the awkward adolescent that she is not alone, that her foremothers also coped with cruel classmates, unrequited crushes, clueless parents. It would be lovely to see these actresses in a movie that respects them enough to do that.
Instead poor Steinfeld, playing the same kind of eager newbie she does in the far more satisfying "Pitch Perfect 2," delivers dopey lines like "Transpo at 0-700 hours" to her bewildered foreign exchange family and falls for the irritating, emo popular guy.
Really, 83, blink twice if you do. I bet there's a real teen girl in there somewhere.
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13, for sexual material, teen drinking, language, drug references and some action violence
Running time: 100 minutes