Bethany (the great Ashley Rickards) is trapped. She’s about to graduate high school as valedictorian of her class of one, as her controlling mother (Anna Gun) home-schools her and barely lets her leave the house. Mom also screens her phone calls, opens her mail, and will only allow her to go to college if it’s online, while Dad (Diedrich Bader) is too busy downing margaritas with his boy toy (an unrecognizably out of shape Haley Joel Osment) to return her phone calls. The boy she likes just joined the Marines and is about to get deployed, and most days she locks herself in her room, browsing fashion magazines and wishing she could disappear.
Sassy Pants has a slightly ludic atmosphere akin to another tale of teen alienation, Dear Lemon Lima, but it unfolds like a fable in which only Bethany doesn’t feel like a canned caricature. And no matter how wittingly excessive the film is in its depiction of the monstrosity of parents, parental smothering will always seem prosaic when we think of Dogtooth’s masterful exposé of normativity’s artifice. Sassy Pants wants to think of Bethany’s predicament as particularly horrific, but compared to the gravitas of Dogtooth, its visual arguments seem facile (Bethany’s mother acts either too civil or not fantastic enough). And while Dear Lemon Lima really owned its colorful cotton-candy aesthetic, creating the feeling that we were roaming through the teen girl’s world, Sassy Pants isn’t willing to give up realism altogether, and definitely not rapid linearity. It can sometimes feel like the script is smothering the story as much as the mother is smothering the daughter. And it sometimes emblematizes American cinema’s knack for expressing its ideas in the most literal and vulgar fashion as cinematically possible, refusing to devote as much attention to the characters as it does to the narrative events. So the liberation of the geeky young girl is, of course, achieved through her fashion sense, helped by an effeminate gay guy who calls her “girlfriend,” and somatized in the way she becomes progressively more gorgeously put together.
There’s a really sweet scene, however, that suggests the film Sassy Pants could have been, one more willing to linger on the affective exchanges between real characters. Bethany has returned home after leaving to be with her father and his boyfriend. She’s now fashionable, pretty, self-confident, and a little freer. Her little brother asks if he can have her eyeliner and she’s caught off guard by the request—just as we’re caught off guard to be witnessing such a vulnerable exchange. She promptly hands him the makeup and tells him how it’s done, and when he shows up all emo-like at school he’s naturally bullied. It’s as if, in an act of kinship, she’s passed on a baton, or in this case a sash.