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With three new releases this month alone (Pitch Perfect 2 and the English-language version of When Marnie Was There opened earlier in May), Hailee Steinfeld continues to reap the benefits of her 2011 True Grit Academy Award nomination. Not that her latest outing lands anywhere near that mark, but it’s a fun-enough teen action comedy to attract attention in ancillary with the help of some decent theatrical exposure.
Anyone will tell you that high school can be hell, especially if you have a secret identity to protect, as orphaned teen black-ops agent Megan Walsh (Steinfeld) quickly discovers. After years under the relentless tutelage of Maxwell Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) in the elite quasi-governmental secret training program known as the Prescott School for Girls, Megan just wants an ordinary teenage life. So she fakes her own death following a series of clandestine international missions and attempts to drop out of sight by concocting a plan to enroll in a middle-American high school as a Canadian exchange student. She receives a mixed welcome from her host family, with single mom Penny (Rachel Harris) welcoming the new addition to her small household, although her teen daughter Liz (Dove Cameron) gives Megan the cold shoulder.
Liz’s reaction is understandable, since helping over-eager Megan fit in at school could bring on instant pariah status, so the newbie is left to fend for herself. Befriending nice-guy, AV nerd Roger (Thomas Mann) represents her first misstep, but falling for the callous connivances of two calculating classmates helps seal Megan’s outsider status when she accepts the position of school mascot for the marching band to impress cute musician and all-around cool guy Cash (Toby Sebastian). Incredibly, her dorky devotion to school spirit does actually get his attention, much to the disappointment of crushed-out Roger and the consternation of Liz and the other girls competing for Cash’s favor. Megan won’t have much opportunity to enjoy her newfound popularity however, once ruthless arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) starts tracking her down.
Debuting screenwriter John D’Arco adeptly pillages decades of teen-movie and TV-show stereotypes, but his principle touchstones are classics like Clueless, Mean Girls and John Hughes’ teen-centered oeuvre. Would that they had leaned a bit more toward the sardonic humor of Heathers or Easy A instead. Barely Lethal, featuring a title with unfortunate connotations for a film showcasing the talents of young women, is happy to settle for mediocrity, however, and perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. Or maybe there is, considering the star wattage employed to enliven some fairly featherweight entertainment.
As Megan’s handler, Jackson is in familiar territory, humorously barking orders at his tween and teen schoolgirl charges, while reserving particular vitriol for Knox as a former Prescott protege, enticingly played by Alba with treacherous disdain. Steinfeld isn’t exactly Hit Girl, but she performs sometimes awkwardly staged stunts smoothly enough, although the comedy among the young actresses is occasionally strained.
Despite the catchy teen secret agent setup, Newman doesn’t attempt to reinvent genres here, preferring to roll out familiar high-school situations and stock action sequences. Although Steinfeld’s larger set pieces sometimes betray a distinctly pared-down appearance, if anyone who can take out the wily villain, outsmart the snarky girls and impress the popular guys, it’s the skillful chick with special ops training.
Production companies: RKO Pictures, RatPac Entertainment, Main Street Films
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Hailee Steinfeld, Jessica Alba, Thomas Mann, Sophie Turner, Dove Cameron, Rachel Harris, Toby Sebastian
Director: Kyle Newman
Screenwriter: John D’Arco
Producers: Vanessa Coifman, Ted Hartley, Sukee Chew, Brett Ratner, John Cheng
Director of photography: Peter Lyons Collister
Production designer: Andrew Neskoromny
Costume designer: Francine Jamison-Tanchuck
Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin
Music: Mateo Messina
Casting director: Stephanie Corsalini
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes
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