What “Clueless” once did with Jane Austen, “Do Revenge” does with Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith. The original “Strangers on a Train” tells the noir tale of two passing strangers agreeing to commit vengeance for the other. It’s the perfect crime because no one could ever suspect they know each other – the only time they’ve met is this one moment, without witness. Naturally, “Do Revenge” transposes this into a teen comedy.
Camila Mendes plays Drea, a student at a private high school who – despite being a scholarship kid – has managed to become the most popular girl in school. That is, until a private video she films for her boyfriend is leaked.
Maya Hawke plays Eleanor, a quiet wallflower transferring to Drea’s high school. The pair meet at a summer tennis camp. Eleanor was once outed as gay, her confidant not only betraying her trust, but also inventing a story that posed her as a predator.
Drea wants vengeance on her ex-boyfriend Max. Eleanor wants vengeance on Carissa. Neither can approach their target – they’d be seen coming a mile away. They agree to swap targets and do each other’s revenge.
You’ll lean one way or the other hearing that description. If you think that’s your jam, then yes it is. “Do Revenge” is exactly what you’re expecting, and much better than you’d anticipate.
If you’re wary of it, that’s why I made the “Clueless” comparison. It’s not just about the premise, in that both transpose classic stories into teen comedies. It’s about how well each pulls it off. “Clueless” nails the etiquette-as-set piece ethic of Austen, while “Do Revenge” understands the tension of Hitchcock and Highsmith isn’t told through the vengeance, but rather in the evolving power dynamic between the two strangers.
On a surface level, comedies can be measured pretty simply. Did you laugh, and do you feel good thinking back about what you laughed at? “Do Revenge” nails its jokes, in-joking social awareness, lampooning what bigots imagine ‘woke’ culture to be, and satirizing the performative allyship that mires forward progress.
What about the other part? Do you feel good thinking back on what you laughed at? Does its memory spark joy and whatnot? Go with me on a tangent. “Do Revenge” isn’t technically a remake, and there aren’t many good remakes of Hitchcock films to start with – but if it was and there were, it’d be the best. Wow, what a strong if-if-then statement. Brush it to the side, it’s nonsense. What’s past it is what’s interesting. Remakes need a reason to be remade; otherwise, what’s the point? “Do Revenge” has some of the best reasons to take this premise and reimagine what it’s capable of showing us.
“Do Revenge” isn’t just window dressing Hitchcock/Highsmith as a teen comedy. Celeste Ballard and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson (who also directs) completely rethink and rewrite what the “Strangers on a Train” premise can discuss about violence and hierarchy. What can it tackle in this moment in time, when people just trying to survive are already exhausted by con artists, cults, performative allyship, and the performance required in response to endure all these just to make it to the point where we forget who the hell we’re trying to survive as in the first place.
The jokes in “Do Revenge” riff on co-opted narratives, on defining social value through cultism, and on how characters can spin identity in a way that misrepresents the reason it’s important. These are all questions the U.S. can’t even process in a responsible way right now. This is the same week a bunch of MLM tupperware party racists can’t process that a fictional mermaid from fictional Atlantica in the fictional “The Little Mermaid” who’s going to sing a bunch of calypso- and reggae-infused songs could be Black. It’s not that the Disney animated version co-opted that music and identity, it’s that returning it is a violation of something, who knows, buy the mug, subscribe and click that bell. Suddenly they’re the victims of…I don’t really know what and neither do they because they made up that victimhood – but 40% of the country signs up for the newsletter.
There is a need to laugh at this, and to do so viciously in a way that’s a kindness to ourselves, to laugh as a type of primal scream (which also features). Do I feel good thinking back on what I laughed at in “Do Revenge”? You’re damn straight. Thank writers like these that someone’s reminding us how ridiculous it is. There’s a clarity that comes with being able to make fun of all this, not just at the level of pointing it out, but at the level of recognizing what it does to us.
In this way, the high school setting is a perfect choice – cliques offer a constant ability to force people into roles others define. The ability to erase identity even as it’s co-opted, of who has the ability to play victim better, informs Drea and Eleanor’s ability to even take vengeance on their targets. Max milks endless sympathy out of the school for the leak of Drea’s private video, even as the school shuns her for sending it. That’s one of the most realistic elements I’ve seen in movies.
The comedy doesn’t just work, it excels, it aims and sinks teeth. What about everyone delivering it?
Mendes and Hawke are both good, but Hawke’s leveling a performance that you usually don’t see in a teen comedy. She’s reminiscent of both her parents – Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. Obviously that goes for appearance, but I mean in terms of nuance. She’s doing so many of the little things it took Ethan Hawke most of his career to figure out, and she has Thurman’s preternatural awareness for how the camera interprets eyeline, posture, and blocking. Maya Hawke’s is one of the best comedy performances of the year.
The filmmaking goes the extra mile as well. Design, staging, and cinematography all fuse to create some unique visual motifs – particularly a use of symmetry used in a discomfiting way. Visual themes repeat and invert – then poke fun at themselves just enough to remind you of ways other films in the genre are being echoed or subverted.
The writing stands out. I already covered landing both the jokes and the intent, but a comedy can be many things. Laughing is the main goal, but in between those laughs does it add a situational cleverness that keeps me smiling and engaged? Does it have that darkly ironic tone that keeps me needing to know what happens next? Is there contrast – is it just big, isolated jokes, or is there a pattering of rapid-fire jokes mixed in? Does it mix the hanging punchline with the big set-up, the visual gag with running banter? If the natural rhythm of the screenplay runs through different ways of being funny, then it’s not just the jokes that are funny – it’s also the surprise at what kind of joke is being told in each moment. It staggers my anticipation, and when I can’t predict the timing in the back of my head as a viewer, that means the comedy has full mastery over its timing.
I honestly didn’t expect a whole lot from “Do Revenge” starting out, but it’s a viciously smart comedy that holds your interest and evokes catharsis. It’s full of wacky hijinks, visually engaging filmmaking, a surprisingly intense story, a weirdly intact 90s ethic and musical score, an absolutely slayed performance by Maya Hawke. Everything I look for in a film like this, “Do Revenge” surpasses in as varied yet cohesive a way as I could want.
You can watch “Do Revenge” on Netflix.
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