One of the essential truths of this world is spoken in the first minute of “Jennifer’s Body:” Hell is a teenage girl.
Teenage girls themselves will be the first to tell you this is true. Their teenage years are a time period of endless oscillation between viciousness and vulnerability, kindness and cruelty. It’s no coincidence that teenage girls are the stars of most of our modern popular horror and dystopian fiction — nothing captures the melodrama and awe and ruthlessness better than an environment to match.
Bearing this in mind, “Jennifer’s Body” ranks among the most definitive portrayals of teenage girls navigating the mess of high school. It’s not “Mean Girls” or “Heathers,” but I’d argue it almost deserves a place among their ranks. This might be surprising, given that “Jennifer’s Body” is a largely unnoticed movie from 2009 that barely recouped its budget, despite starring Megan Fox at the peak of her post-“Transformers” uberfame/overexposure.
It’s always seemed strange to me that this movie never attained legend status, because it has all the elements of a cult classic: killer soundtrack, poor box office performance and critical reception, questionable special effects, a silly story and a genuine emotional core grounding the whole affair. And yet, here we stand. Another Halloween season passes by and “Jennifer’s Body” still isn’t getting the glory it deserves.
“Jennifer’s Body” tells the story of Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried, “Love the Coopers”) and her best friend Jennifer, played by Fox. Needy is the beta to Jennifer’s alpha, putting up with all kinds of nasty jokes and power plays in the name of friendship.
Despite this, Needy is very clearly in love with Jennifer. One night, the girls go to a local bar to see an indie band, Low Shoulder. Later that night, the band kidnaps Jennifer to use her in a virgin ritual sacrifice to Satan in exchange for fame and success. The only problem is that Jennifer isn’t a virgin at all, so instead of dying, she’s possessed by a demon that turns her into a murderous cannibalistic monster.
Despite all the supernatural top-layer shenanigans, “Jennifer’s Body” is maybe one of the most painfully honest movies I’ve seen in its representation of the nastiness of adolescence. Not in the sense of what happens, but in how it’s motivated and in the precision of the characterizations. There’s the the indie pretentiousness of the members of Low Shoulder, matching crescent moon tattoos and all — “Do you want to work at Costa Coffee forever?” asks the lead singer to his hesitant drummer when he voices nervousness about actually murdering Jennifer, “or do you want to be rich and awesome, like that guy from Maroon 5?” There’s the dopey apathetic faux-concern of Needy’s boyfriend, who repeatedly fails to believe her when she warns him about Jennifer being a demon. “Needy, I care about you as a person,” he says, “not just some girl I made love to for four minutes the other night.”
Then, of course, there’s Jennifer. She’s mean and callous even before the demonic possession, but she’s first and foremost vulnerable. You see it in the way her voice rises an octave as she flirts with the older, more sophisticated band members of Low Shoulder, in her inability to ever hurt her best friend despite her all-encompassing demonic urges and in the hurt she feels when Needy throws her out of her house.
There’s a scene late in the movie in which Jennifer is getting ready for the big dance. We see her reflection up close in a small mirror on her desk. She’s smearing makeup on her face, and the look in her eyes is unmistakable if you’re at all familiar with the feeling: she’d give anything to be anybody else in this moment.
Perhaps the most truthful element of “Jennifer’s Body” is the relationship between Needy and Jennifer. They’re deeply devoted to each other in the obsessive, intensive way that’s so specific to the friendships of teenage girls. Their power dynamics shift continually from scene to scene, minute to minute. They love each other, they hate each other, they try to kill each other. It’s deeply complicated and ridiculous in the way only high school can be.
The main issue critics took with “Jennifer’s Body” was that it wasn’t scary enough to be an effective horror movie. Now, it’s not that the critics were wrong, per se, just that I think they might have misunderstood the movie’s intentions. The movie never intended to frighten with jump scares or monster makeup. “Jennifer’s Body” was about the visceral, heart-pounding brutality with which teenage girls tear themselves and each other apart — all bared teeth, sharp smiles and the awful emptiness of wanting everything so very deeply and for far too much.
So, the weak humor and horror actually matters very little — it’s funny in the ways it needs to be, in ways that are true to the characters. And it’s scary in ways that are true to life. Nothing is more terrifying than a teenage girl willing to do whatever it takes to get exactly what she wants.