Barely Lethal doesn’t have a bad hook. Haughty high school queen bees have forever wrought havoc at the movies, but none have squared off with a rival trained to kill, a trait marking Megan Walsh (Hailee Steinfeld) as a potentially tantalizing protagonist. Raised in a secret government organization as an adolescent assassin, Megan fakes her death and enrolls in high school to live as a true teenager. She quickly discerns the stresses of gossip and cliques are equitable to a black op, an inevitable twist inviting devious black comedy, suggesting an enticing mix of Never Been Kissed and Kick Ass. But the film takes its title literally, retreating from the sinister aspects of its high concept by opting for the safe haven of a wit-free zone. Rather than deconstructing the young-adult experience through the eyes of an ingeniously deadly protagonist proficient at doing harm, the film becomes discouragingly harmless, settling into a time-honored groove of so many forgettable juvenile comedies before it.
“Jesus, Ringwald,” Megan’s pal exclaims when she expresses desire to take the coolest guy at school to prom. Indeed, her plight resembles Molly Ringwald’s in Pretty in Pink, only without John Hughes’s sense of whimsy. Megan falls for a vapid emo YouTube sensation while Roger (Thomas Mann), the virtually faceless nice guy, meekly pines for her. That she fails to reciprocate his feelings until the third act seems difficult to fathom considering the in-depth intel Megan gathers by binge-watching teen comedies in order to account for every possible scenario. Yet even if in moments like that Barely Lethal feints at being delightfully sentient, it never fully awakens to its satirical potential. When a cheerleader wonders if Megan would like to join her for lunch, the request is rejected for fear this is merely a mean girl springing a social trap. Though this trepidation is proven untrue, the cagy bit suggests a film where Megan actually uses her counter-insurgency skills to employ the assortment of teen-beat clichés against themselves and lead a coup d’état of the genre’s immutable structure. Instead, she sinks right into it, becoming the star in her very own formulaic teenage farce.