High school, college, adolescence, the teenage years: These are the times long regarded as opportunities for personal change, when kids aren’t quite kids but aren’t quite adults either. They are stuck at this strange fulcrum between hedonism and maturity, where every choice becomes dramatic. And ever since film was established as a legitimate art form, stories of young adults wrestling with themselves, each other and their extremely malleable worldviews have become some of the most empathetic films produced. The films of John Hughes, Richard Linklater and, more recently, Greta Gerwig have all captured the teenage experience in specific ways.
But none of these accomplished auteurs have created anything so shocking and provocative that it shatters the collective consciousness and has the potential to create a new level of discourse in society (such as the 1997 classic “Good Burger”). It’s rare to see an audiovisual experience so cutting-edge and bold that it has kept me awake at night for weeks straight, pondering the illusive truth that lay within the enigma. But the hegemony is shattered with Mark Water’s masterpiece “He’s All That” starring the majestic and ever-vexing Addison Rae.
Now, you probably think I’m insane. If I just read that without any context, I would think so too. But I think I have discovered the inner light inside this truly incredible piece of work.
On the surface, the film is certainly a disaster. The acting is bad. The editing is bad. The movie is drowning in the presence of a Gen Z, TikTok aesthetic that makes the audience physically cringe. However, dear reader, I implore you to face this repulsion head-on, because hidden underneath the disgusting crust is an intellectual feast.
Take protagonist Padgett Sawyer (Addison Rae, “Spy Cat”). She appears to be a selfish, somewhat ignorant TikTok influencer-high schooler combination, and she doesn’t respect her mother. Her boyfriend Jordan Van Draanen (Peyton Meyer, “Girl Meets World”) cheats on her, and her emotional reaction (which is being livestreamed to her fanbase) causes her to lose her sponsorship deals. To rebuild her image, she decides to give an unpopular classmate, Cameron Kweller (Tanner Buchanan, “Cobra Kai”), a makeover with the help of his sister (Isabella Crovetti, “Magic Camp”) and ends up falling for him.
This plot is generic and cliché-ridden, but Padgett is a force of nature within this setting. She and Cameron’s sister Brin are able to transform Cameron from a “loser” to a conventionally attractive man. At first glance, this appears to be a superficial, conformist transformation, especially since it seems like the movie is advocating for it. But, in the context of the story this movie has been adapted from, Padgett and Cameron have much deeper, metaphorical roles.
“He’s All That,” its predecessor “She’s All That” and its predecessor “My Fair Lady” are all based off of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play “Pygmalion,” which itself takes its inspiration and title from the Greek myth. Essentially, the story of “He’s All That” is as old and ubiquitous as Western civilization itself. In every nook and cranny of culture that has been influenced by classical antiquity, you can find a version of “He’s All That.”
In this Greek myth, best captured in Ovid’s epic poem “Metamorphoses,” sculptor and king Pygmalion, a celibate misogynist, creates a sculpture of a woman that he finds so perfect that he falls in love with it. He prays to Aphrodite, who gives life to the sculpture which becomes his wife.
One of this story’s themes is the idea of creation and how human beings that have uneven power dynamics can essentially move to the same level. In the case of the original myth, the dynamic is between a person and an object. The person becomes infatuated with the object and sacrifices some of the power dynamic, while the object gains power to create a more horizontal relationship. Creator and creation versus husband and wife.
The consequences of this shift in power reverberate throughout literature. In the particular case of “He’s All That” — where the metaphorical sculpture is not a sculpture but another person, Cameron — protagonist Padgett chooses to play God and act as the creator of Cameron’s new, socially acceptable persona. In doing so, she becomes sympathetic to Cameron, renounces her godhood and falls back to the level of being a person. At the same time, Cameron rises from being an object to becoming a human, with the film ending with the two of them together as equals.
Even in a modern, image-obsessed, dominance-hierarchy enabled world — which the film purposefully bombards the viewer with reminders of — people are ultimately unable to exert true dominance over each other if they have an investment in the other person’s growth. The film argues that human pride and self-importance lend their way to pity and attraction because people cannot let go of something that they think they have made better, even if that “thing” is another person.
“He’s All That” shows that people involved in each other’s lives can’t maintain power over one another over a long period of time. Padgett can’t play God forever, but only because her ego wants the seed that she planted to flourish. “He’s All That” argues that human beings, even in their attempts to eliminate self-important power structures over other people, will ironically succumb to their egos.
Staring at “He’s All That” right in the eye, I’ve realized that multiple minutes of analyzing this film have led to the same feeling that most other viewers of “He’s All That” have gotten without any thinking: disgust. This is either the film’s genius or my own failure. It argues that people succumb to their egos, and here I am, succumbing to my ego by sarcastically overanalyzing this ridiculous movie and presenting my opinions as universal truths, while wasting time I could be spending on academic or personal growth. But as I am writing this, accepting my failure as an arrogant human, I have realized that I would not have gotten to consider the implications of my self-indulgence without having such a strong opinion on this movie.
I think that writing this piece on “He’s All That” has initiated a state of self-reflection. I believe this movie is bad. Many other people believe this movie is bad. So why have I spent a thousand words writing about it? Because I want to be heard. And because I want to feel important. My ego enabled me to believe that I am better than this movie because mocking a poorly received movie makes me feel better about myself. But I am not better than anyone who likes this movie, or anyone who was involved in its production.
It seems like an obvious statement that having different opinions doesn’t mean people should be valued differently. But when the whole pretense of writing this was the assumption that I know best, it isn’t that obvious. It’s super easy to forget that there is no objectivity in what people like and enjoy. Whether you love it or hate it, an opinion on “He’s All That” is not a reflection on self-worth. And I am done trying to be an authority on it.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at email@example.com.