Clueless

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Clueless
"Silverstone immerses herself in the character of Cher."

Based on Jane Austen's 1815 novel Emma and brought to the screen in the 1990s in a style unabashedly saturated with that decade's teen pop culture, Clueless is a film full of hybrid vigour. It brought a fresh lease on life to the high school genre at a critical point in its development, after the cynicism of Heathers but before it was reinvented in upbeat post-modern form. Today it has a cult following that extends beyond the age range where one might expect nostalgic attachment. But how does it actually measure up?

Alicia Silverstone, who had proved her mettle in 1993 drama The Crush but then found herself making ends meet with TV movies and music videos, is perfectly cast as spoilt rich girl Cher. In a standard high school film of the era, she'd be the hottest and the coolest thing in class, shimmying through the corridors with a small coterie of not-quite-as-glamorous hangers-on, flirting with the frat boys and striking terror into those who failed to fit in. This, however, is a film with a much more realistic approach, it's just that Cher hasn't noticed. So she strolls around perfectly coiffed and dressed in designer togs with one friend and strikes confusion into most of those she tries to impress. The thing she really can't pin down is the meanness. How could she, when it's going out of fashion? Cher has decided that the new way to be hip is to do good deeds, and it's a cause to which she's ready to devote all her energy, even if she doesn't really know where to begin.

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Given the usual high school movie priorities, Cher's first concern is with matchmaking, which she sees as a cure for all social ills. First it's a teacher who she's sure would be nicer if only he had the right woman in his life. Then it's awkward new girl Tai (Brittany Murphy), who gets the benefit of some dubious fashion advice and blundering attempts to fix her up with the boy Cher has decided is right for her, even if neither initially shows much interest in the other. What Cher doesn't realise - despite her determination to achieve perfection in her own romantic life as well - is that her obsessions have blinded her to the fact she's falling in love, and not with anyone she's dating.

Messy as all this is, it takes a bravura performance to hold it together. Silverstone immerses herself in the character of Cher, who unwittingly puts herself through one humiliation after another yet whose earnestness - and often accidental wit - keeps viewers with her. For all that her do-gooding is a lifestyle choice, there's a genuine sweetness about her that saturates the film. Teenagers will find her easy to identify with and adults will find her much more endearing than annoying, as well as enjoying the humour that goes over her head.

Amy Heckerling's sophomore script is keenly observant and she uses her familiarity with the genre as a director to set up expectations that are then neatly undercut. There's still a fantasy aspect to the film in that everybody is absurdly rich and, of course, love finds a way in the end, but this is the high school film's coming of age and the real world is never very far away. With this in mind, the film's unevenness often works in its favour, and the fact that it now seems extremely dated doesn't matter one bit. It may not be perfect, but it's full of heart.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2018
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Clueless packshot
A rich high school student tries to give a fellow student a makeover but finds herself falling in love.

Festivals:

EIFF 2017
Glasgow 2018

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