'Valley Girl': Film Review

Courtesy of Orion Classics
A totally bitchin' guilty pleasure.
5/8/2020

Jessica Rothe and Joshua Whitehouse traverse zip codes as the star-crossed lovers in this jukebox-musical remake of the 1983 cult rom-com, with Alicia Silverstone as a mom sharing life lessons.

Just when you thought the '80s nostalgia industrial complex had gone beyond saturation point, along comes a movie that injects fresh fizz into the retro groove. It's fitting that Martha Coolidge's 1983 teen rom-com, Valley Girl, which was inspired by Frank and Moon Unit Zappa's novelty pop hit of the same name, should now come full circle in a musical remake driven by a whole karaoke party menu of period tunes. And it speaks to director Rachel Lee Goldenberg's love of the original that she repurposes Modern English's "I Melt With You" as the border-crossing Hollywood punk hunk's prom-night serenade to his San Fernando Valley sweetheart.

The effervescent Orion Classics release seems ideally destined to be consumed by Gen Xers in lockdown with a pitcher of kamikazes and a sound system cranked to the max. Better yet if they can dig out leg-warmers and fingerless lace gloves for the occasion.

The 1982 single by Zappa père et fille broke into the Top 40 via early airplay on KROQ, which gets a shout-out from Goldenberg and screenwriter Amy Talkington as the Los Angeles radio network that hosts a live broadcast of that aforementioned senior prom. The song — a crunchy guitar riff accompanied by a stream of deliciously vapid Valspeak — helped popularize "Oh, my God" and "like" as conversational punctuation that would take over the world, as well as ushering in the ubiquitous reign of the upward inflection.

While the Zappas shunned involvement in Coolidge's film and tried unsuccessfully to sue over trademark infringement, the movie mainlined the vernacular parodied in the song, so much so that a TV guide blurb once memorably described it as, "The story of a girl with a regional accent who falls in love," or something to that effect. It helped launch the eternal is-he-really-good-or-really-bad? debate around then little-known Nicolas Cage, and also marked a shift in American teen comedies away from horny boys to girls looking for love without surrendering their individuality.

Goldenberg and Talkington honor that tradition by affectionately crafting a storyteller role for an uncredited Alicia Silverstone, forever a queen of the genre thanks to her divine work in Clueless, which was pretty much Valley Girl 2.0 by way of Jane Austen. From Coolidge through Clueless director Amy Heckerling to this remake's key creative team, having women in the drivers' seats seems significant in the warmth and respect these movies shower on their well-rounded female characters.

The new film gets less hung up on the dialect but it finds an amusing way to stick to the original period while bringing some contemporary perspective. Silverstone plays the adult Julie, a cool mom rocking a Bowie T-shirt under her shawl cardigan whose daughter Ruby (Camila Morrone) has just broken up with her boyfriend over her plans to follow school with a study program in Japan. Julie sits her down to share her wisdom, revisiting her own final semester of high school, a time when "Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words."

Cue a needle drop and a sugar-rush explosion of pastels and candy-colored neon as the perky young Julie (Jessica Rothe) and her posse hit the Galleria in the early '80s for a shopping montage set to "We Got the Beat," the first of many era-defining songs covered for the movie, either as production numbers or background soundtrack cuts.

Adult Julie talks about the bougie bubble of the Valley in relation to the edgy Sunset Strip punk scene: "It was just a few zip codes over but it seemed like a million miles away." Cut to Randy (Joshua Whitehouse), who sings lead in Safety Recall, a band that also includes his jaded lesbian roommate Jack (Mae Whitman) and spike-haired drummer Sticky (Mario Revolori). Their intro song is "Bad Reputation." Duh.

From the start, the young Julie shows a curiosity about the wild side of life over the hill that leaves her less adventurous girlfriends, Stacey (Jessie Ennis), Loryn (Ashleigh Murray) and Karen (Chloe Bennet), disconcerted. But the conformity of the Valley exemplified by her boyfriend — rich, blond school tennis star Mickey (Logan Paul), who wears popped-collar double polo shirts — is starting to chafe. When Julie connects with tattooed bad boy Randy, first in a casual encounter at the beach and later at a Valley costume party, where their eyes lock over a slow-mo version of "Kids in America," it's clear she needs to bust out of Encino.

That party allows costumer Maya Lieberman to run riot, with guests dressed as Madonna, Dolly Parton, Rocky Balboa, George Michael, Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Henry Thomas in E.T. and Princesses Leia and Diana, among a head-spinning array of hilarious iconic looks. Production designer Theresa Guleserian matches that infectious fondness for the period with her inventively detailed sets. Even the school bathroom stall doors are an eye-popping fuchsia.

Beyond the framing device, the plot sticks to the broad outlines of its predecessor, with its bubblegum take on Romeo and Juliet molded into a classic teen-movie template.

The path to mutual commitment hits the usual obstacles. Julie's friends run interference, particularly shady Karen, who covets Mickey for herself. Julie's doting parents (sweetly daffy Judy Greer and Rob Huebel, the latter resurrecting Frederic Forrest's spectacular mustache from the original) worry about her making reckless plans to move to — gasp! — New York with a boy they haven't met. Randy's bandmates see Julie as a threat ("You're Sid and she's Nancy, and not in a good way," Sticky tells him). And Randy's own misgivings about how he might fit into her "shiny, bright, perfect life" cause him momentarily to freak out.

Though there's never much doubt as to where the movie is headed, its conclusion nonetheless springs an almost subversively mature twist on the rosy first-love narrative. That doesn't mean it's trying to be something more than unapologetic froth, but there's a genuine buoyancy throughout, both in the colorful visuals and in the storytelling, even as it hits familiar beats.

Much of that spirit comes from the energized song score produced by Harvey Mason Jr. It serves as a welcome reminder that the gloriously synthetic 1980s generated a lot of enduring music alongside the processed cheese. Director Goldenberg (whose most notable previous credit is the Lifetime Movie misfire, A Deadly Adoption, with Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig playing it straight) and editor Julia Wong keep things zipping along, seldom resisting an opportunity to advance the story with a music video-style interlude.

An aerobics workout that mashes up Depeche Mode, Madonna, Hall & Oates and Soft Cell is a hoot; a dizzy carousel ride to "Take On Me" simultaneously cements the central romance while tracking Julie's style evolution from mall queen to mosh pit babe; lovesick Randy gets consolation from Jack in a rooftop duet on The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry"; and who doesn't want to participate in a roller-disco elimination contest (an homage to Grease) to "Safety Dance?" (Choreographer Mandy Moore did the peppy routines.)

Most of the covers don't stray far from the originals, but Randy's scrappy punk retread of Madonna's "Crazy for You" as an onstage tribute to Julie is a welcome surprise, and the movie reaches its tripindicular zenith when the Queen/David Bowie classic, "Under Pressure," becomes a transitional ensemble number in the troubled lead-up to the prom. (Around that point the original Julie, Deborah Foreman, pops up in a cameo as a boutique assistant.)

The filmmakers' obvious love for the music and fashions of the era elevates the '80s nostalgia beyond a one-note joke and allows the story and characters to acquire their own momentum. The appealing cast also is indispensable in that regard, led with natural charm and sparkling chemistry by Rothe (of the Happy Death Day movies, also one of Emma Stone's roommates in La La Land) and Brit actor-musician Whitehouse. Among the supporting ranks, Ennis gets the most dimension as brainy Stacey, whose torn loyalty to Julie serves as the bridge between the two worlds. (YouTube star Logan Paul, whose "suicide forest" controversy caused the original release to be pushed back from summer 2018, is suitably smug in the stock douche role.)

There's a nice bit of understated feminist messaging about young women blazing their own trails that incorporates a nod to Encino's own Sally Ride, who became the first American woman in space in 1983. But mostly, Valley Girl succeeds because it doesn't take itself too seriously, instead offering a fun return to the roller coaster peaks and valleys of first love while reminding us that the experience can change young lives without necessarily defining them.

Production companies: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Sneak Preview Entertainment
Distributor: Orion Classics (in select drive-ins and VOD)
Cast: Jessica Rothe, Joshua Whitehouse, Alicia Silverstone, Rob Huebel, Judy Greer, Jessie Ennis, Ashleigh Murray, Chloe Bennet, Logan Paul, Mae Whitman, Mario Revolori, Camila Morrone
Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg
Screenwriters: Amy Talkington, based on the story by Andrew Lane, Wayne Crawford
Producers: Matt Smith, Steven J. Wolfe
Director of photography: Adam Silver
Production designer: Theresa Guleserian
Costume designer: Maya Lieberman
Music: Roger Neill
Music producer: Harvey Mason Jr.
Music supervisor: Andrea Von Foerster
Editor: Julia Wong
Choreographer: Mandy Moore
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes