The making of generation-gap comedy has—like so much other comedy—become fraught with incompetence and indifference. It’s difficult to generate the necessary perceptive social observations when so many film and TV writers are still blanket-referring to anyone under 30 as millennials, seemingly unaware that Gen Z not only exists but is rocketing toward their obligatory quarter-life crisis. (Similarly, plenty of Gen-Xers have been incorrectly categorized as boomers for years.) The new comedy Senior Year offers brief hope that filmmakers actually pay attention to this stuff. In its opening minutes, it tracks the journey of teenager Stephanie Conway (Angourie Rice) from insecure underclassman nerd in 1999 to popular (though still secretly insecure) queen bee in 2002. While the movie isn’t explicit about tracking the cultural changes that saw the end of alt-rock give way to the lip-glossed, boy-banded poptimism of the early ‘00s, there’s a tremor of recognition in watching Stephanie contort herself to fit into the model of the plastic, self-aware teen movies of that era. Plenty of teenagers change with the times; Stephanie just sets upon her metamorphosis more consciously than some.
The movie then ups the ante by pulling the temporal rug out from under its of-the-moment heroine. After a grim cheerleading accident, Stephanie falls into a coma, where she stays for 20 years. Now played by Rebel Wilson, she wakes up in 2022 to a vastly different world, and feels understandably robbed of the prom-queen glory she was poised for back in ’02. Her displacement fits with the initial turn-of-the-century time period: Stephanie’s She’s All That transformation and Bring It On lifestyle have become, instead, a more promiscuous version of Never Been Kissed—because she insists on re-enrolling in high school to finish out her final month and reclaim her crown, metaphorically and literally. She assembles a multi-step plan to become popular, head the cheerleading squad and win prom queen. (First obstacle: The titles of prom king and queen have been long-since abolished.)
It’s absurd, of course, that a 37-year-old would be allowed to step back into her alma mater, interacting with a bunch of underage classmates, including Brie (Jade Bender), the daughter of Stephanie’s old nemesis Tiffany (Zoë Chao). But Stephanie’s less popular bestie Martha (Mary Holland) has become principal of their old high school, while their friend Seth (Sam Richardson) has just started working as a librarian, and they gingerly support her efforts to restart her life while attempting to steer her away from her most superficial fantasies. Director Alex Hardcastle nails the visual language of Stephanie’s headspace: When she rolls up for her first day of school, she imagines herself in a note-perfect imitation of her heyday’s McG music video aesthetic.
For a while, the movie fills out the caricatured high-concept ridiculousness of its premise with surprising nuance that refuses to indulge pronouns-in-bio sneering at the younger generation. Brie’s social success with this crowd has an especially novel, Gen Z twist: She’s the queen bee as a manicured high school brand who, as another character explains, is friendly to everyone without actually having many genuine friends. Direct cruelty is no longer social capital—there’s a funny, spot-on runner about how Stephanie traffics in coarse ‘00s-era terms of not-quite-endearment like “sluts” and “hobags,” much to the confusion of contemporary teenagers—yet virtual castes still form.
If Senior Year had been willing to further develop its affectionate social satire, it might have been a surprise 2020s classic of the teen-movie genre. Instead, it’s dead set on proving it has heart, too, and in the process becomes as thirsty for likes as any teenager’s Insta. Stephanie’s drive for popularity, and her limited teenage visions of a happy life, must be explained not only by her former insecurities, but by the offscreen death of her mother, awkwardly withheld from Rice’s earliest scenes. Rather than providing a strong emotional underpinning, it only widens the gaps in performance continuity between the two Stephanies; Rice only slightly modifies her delivery to match her adult counterpart, and Wilson still does plenty of wild-woman shtick before circling back to the tedious business of sincerity.
Wilson does make the movie feel like her own. Between Senior Year and her rom-com spoof Isn’t It Romantic, her star-as-auteur imprint has become clear: A pop-culture exuberance akin to binge-reading back issues of Entertainment Weekly. (If it wasn’t her idea to meticulously recreate the video for second-tier Britney Spears single “Drive Me Crazy,” it sure feels like it.) But like Romantic, Senior Year becomes fixated on the idea of pop culture as a kind of self-esteem therapy session, preaching the power and glory of just being yourself, culminating in a music-video dance party.
And unlike the 89-minute Romantic, Senior Year rambles on for nearly two hours, with most of its best moments spent by the halfway mark. Even the movie’s pop-culture precision eventually falters. Its recurring song-cue touchstone is a dancier version of “A Moment Like This,” Kelly Clarkson’s first-season American Idol victory single, the culmination of a show that premiered a few months after Stephanie’s spring 2002 accident and doesn’t feel especially rooted in teen culture. This may look like a minor detail, but it’s also an easy stand-in for how the desire for earnest emotional catharsis gets in the way of the movie’s comic inclinations. By the time the whole cast is hamming it up on stage in an inclusive group cheerleading routine, Senior Year has the sweaty fervor of a revival meeting—and a similar laugh quotient.
Director: Alex Hardcastle
Writers: Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, Brandon Scott Jones
Starring: Rebel Wilson, Mary Holland, Sam Richardson, Angourie Rice, Chris Parnell, Jade Bender, Zoë Chao, Avantika Vandanapu
Release Date: May 13, 2022 (Netflix)
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.