“It’s quite frankly a chaotic movie, which plays both for and against it.”
by Ken Bakely
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Do Revenge is a deeply dark comedy dripping with satire, stuffed with ideas, and overfilling with references to the many other movies that it takes as inspiration. It’s quite frankly a chaotic movie, which plays both for and against it. But lest it lose itself too soon, it does focus much of its aim around a few particular ideas, many of which come from the class and social dynamics of its setting: a ludicrously wealthy private high school in Miami, where vast family fortunes and Ivy League futures are taken as givens. Drea (Camila Mendes), of working-class background and attending the school on a scholarship, is aware that she does not fit the socioeconomic mold that she is expected to fill, but she has seemingly been accepted, dating Max (Austin Abrams), class president and a beloved golden boy who fits the school’s archetype precisely. But it all falls apart – they have an extremely public breakup when she discovers he has leaked a nude video of her. The other students close ranks around him after his pitiful attempts at denial and damage control, and she is a complete pariah who has lost all her status. But she is not alone on the outskirts: she befriends Eleanor (Maya Hawke), a classmate whose life was turned upside down years ago when she was outed by a peer who then started horrific rumors about her. Said girl, Eleanor confirms, also attends the school. So they hatch a plan to exact revenge against their tormentors, swapping targets to keep suspicion at bay.
The idea at the core of Do Revenge’s story is well-trodden ground, but the movie’s approach to telling it is busy and kinetic in search of its own spin. It’s told as a restless sequence of events, building up suspense, raising stakes, revealing dramatic twists – and in ways large and small, prying and critiquing the very devices of the revenge plot and the space it holds in culture. Robinson, directing a script she co-wrote with Celeste Ballard, loads up the film with elaborate comedy, intimate character building, and humming commentary. But there’s an imbalance to the way that all these ideas and approaches try to co-exist. A movie that goes this big, this consistently has to keep its disparate elements contiguous, and there are times when the film is at odds with itself. The verbose dialogue can be crisply biting, such as a speech where the smugly brazen Max – insincerely brandishing faux-progressive ideals to keep his true self from being revealed – announces he has founded the extremely disingenuous “Cis-Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League,” with a sucrose delivery that should put Abrams in contention for giving the line reading of the year. But at other times, it clunkily rattles around, having its characters spew references and in-jokes repetitively call attention to the ideas that the movie already comments on. Mendes and Hawke are great as the sly, messy, and determined leads, and can – like the rest of the cast – bring the most to their characters when they’re allowed to embrace the absurdities of this setting and this situation. This movie goes to ridiculous places, and it does so early and often; if there’s ever a point when it feels like it’s doubting its own commitment, it can’t work.
When Do Revenge soars, its audacious action and quick banter keep the film funny and pointed. It can move at a fast and fresh clip, and it’s then when it all feels like one cohesive achievement, with Brian Burgoyne’s bright cinematography capturing the movie’s action, all complemented by Hillary Gurtler’s splashy, pastel production design. There’s so much effort to fine-tuning the small details – on a side note, this is a good example of a movie where the soundtrack cuts just effortlessly work – and when it feels like everything is on the same page, it’s entertaining, slick, and incisive in good measure. Its shortcomings are most apparent when it presents the possibility of differing paths – like whether to scrutinize its characters’ choices openly or to let the ludicrous developments speak for themselves – and feels like it isn’t really sure what direction it wants to go in. It leads to an ending that just isn’t quite as incisive or brutal as what’s come before, because it’s been second-guessing a little too much, and switching lanes a tad too late. Individual moments and ideas pop off the screen, and the film is always kept afloat by two stellar lead performances, but Do Revenge – coming in too long at a touch under two hours – spends too much time spinning its wheels to deliver as fully and as sharply as its best achievements prove it can.