Teen action-comedy Barely Lethal is this summer’s best film with a truly unfortunate title. Don’t let the obnoxious marketing (“Click. Clique. Bang” — really?) fool you: Despite an out-of-left-field donkey-punch joke, Barely Lethal‘s combination of bawdy humor and earnest affection for its high-school-aged protagonists is surprisingly well-balanced.
This film is so inoffensive that even its dick jokes could have been lifted from an especially blue episode of Bunheads. Barely Lethal emulates the recent 21 Jump Street films in its tongue-in-cheek meta-subversion of teen comedy tropes. The main difference is that this film is about a teenage assassin.
Megan Walsh (True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld) flees from the Prescott school for girl assassins to pursue the kind of adolescence she’s seen in Mean Girls and Beverly Hills, 90210. But Megan soon learns that formula-enforced clichés about shy geeks and malicious cheerleaders aren’t all true.
Megan’s hit-girl life periodically disrupts her high school misadventures, particularly once Prescott headmaster Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) and jealous rival killer Heather (Sophie Turner) track her down. But for the most part, Megan’s life revolves around punny flirtations with gawky Roger (Thomas Mann), doe-eyed encounters with super-cool musician Cash (Toby Sebastian), and sibling rivalry with perpetually mortified stepsister Liz (Dove Cameron).
Throw in some jokes about slide-trombones and Martin Van Buren’s sideburns, and you’re not far from the winningly wholesome realm of Archie Comics. Barely Lethal may be about a pint-sized murderer, but her exploits are as genial as fake-mustache-related sight gags and wisecracks about sketchy 2 a.m Waffle Houses.