Despite an A+ premise, Senior Year fails to graduate head of the class
It doesn’t take long for Senior Year to lay out its outlandish premise, which is centered on a popular high schooler who awakens from a two-decade-long coma and, hoping to pick up right where she left off, strives to finish her senior year at the age of 37. Within minutes, we’re transported into the fray of this woman’s messy state of arrested development. And though director Alex Hardcastle and screenwriters Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, and Brandon Scott Jones take to heart the smart concept of a person caught out of time in high school, much like the ingenious 21 Jump Street and Never Been Kissed did, this Netflix original lacks the power of those cinematic predecessors to stick the landing.
After moving to the United States from Australia, impressionable teen Stephanie (Angourie Rice) was desperate to fit in with the popular crowd. Poring over trendy magazines and MTV, sporting the right wardrobe, and following the accepted social norms helped our young heroine become the most popular girl in her high school by her senior year. Now she’s on track for her so-called perfect life—driving a red convertible Cabriolet, dating the hottest guy in class, Blaine (Tyler Barnhardt), and getting named captain of the cheer squad—or so she thinks. Tragedy strikes when jealous class bully Tiffany (Ana Yi Puig) sabotages their show-stopping, Bring It On-esque cheer routine, landing the 17-year-old in a hospital bed, stuck in a coma.
On her 37th birthday, Stephanie awakens to find not only has her body changed, but so has the world around her. There are all sorts of new popular things, from cellphones to superstars, to learn about, and not all of it comes as a welcome surprise. Her teenage aspirations of one day owning the most picturesque house in town are quickly dashed when she discovers adult Tiffany (Zoe Chao) and Blaine (Justin Hartley) are married and living there. Yet instead of going into a state of shock, she decides to get her life back on track, go back to school and achieve the one goal she couldn’t: being crowned Prom Queen. However, doing this proves difficult as the school has long since banished the competition and she must navigate contemporary social mores to get it reinstated.
Painfully simplistic in its execution, which frequently undervalues its clever set-up, and featuring unlikeable, poorly drawn characters, the movie works overtime to make the audience actively dislike it. Stephanie’s two closest friends—insecure, puppy-dog eyed Seth (Sam Richardson) and mousy, kind-hearted Martha (Mary Holland)—act as her conscience, but forgive her far too easily when inevitably called upon to do so. Others like Tiffany and her socially conscious daughter Bri (Jade Bender), Stephanie’s contemporary rival, experience unearned change, despite the latter being given the story’s most compelling arc. Plus, satisfactory resolutions are tangibly muted, dampened by frustrating creative choices.
Since the protagonist is a transplant from 2002, and her manner of speech (aggressively overusing the term “slut”), dance, and dress are directly pulled from that year, this film’s vibes are on par with popular teen raunch-coms of that era. That level of insight appears accidental as none of these filmmakers innovate with their own ideas. It’s not all bad, however, as they admirably comment on stereotypes and gender politics, making some funny fish-out-of-water jokes at Stephanie’s expense in the process.
Wilson, who previously played a woman with a head injury in the far funnier and sharper romcom send-up Isn’t It Romantic, perfectly nails the physicality of a spoiled, selfish teen—feigning embarrassment, touching her face with her hands, slumping her shoulders and putting on a cutesy whine. Her nuance also elevates the material, specifically in the third act, when the script calls on her to sell her character’s inevitable change from selfish to selfless. Her scenes with writer-actor Jones, who also co-starred with her in the aforementioned film, show off their pleasant rapport, yet sadly can’t save the picture.
There aren’t many modern films focused on the female mid-life crisis, and it’s doubtful this will inspire more to be made—a shame, considering that with more craft and care, Senior Year could’ve been far more meaningful, even genuinely uproarious. While the kooky shenanigans and hijinks don’t yield much in the way of heart or humor, its snappy pace and the leading lady’s comedic prowess make it just worthy enough for your Netflix queue. Just don’t expect to be throwing your cap in the air when it’s over.