The highest compliment one can pay Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s viciously delectable “Do Revenge” is that it should stand alongside the many iconic teen flicks it both cribs from and pays homage to. The premise, which follows two teenage girls opting to seek revenge on one another’s rivals sounds, upon first inspection, like “Strangers on a Train” at a posh private school. But that’s too simplistic a take. After all, Robinson’s project owes less to Hitchock’s infamous classic than to the likes of “Heathers,” “Mean Girls” and “Cruel Intentions” — influences the film wears proudly on its stylish and appropriately throwbacky Y2K-era sleeves.
You can see why Robinson (“Someone Great”) and co-writer Celeste Ballard (“Space Jam: A New Legacy”) would want to take up Patricia Highsmith-via-Hitchcock’s narrative and ensnare it in the world of petty high school politics. The intrigue of two strangers, in this case Drea (“Riverdale” star Camila Mendes) and Eleanor (Maya Hawke of “Stranger Things”), conjuring wildly outlandish plans aimed at taking down their respective bullies (“We should team up and do each other’s revenge,” as they put it, ergo the film’s title), gets a much needed jolt when framed within the world of queen bees and wannabes. No one is more ruthless than a teenage girl, especially one recently scorned.
That would be Drea. At the start of the film, she’s on top of the world. She may be a scholarship kid but she doesn’t let on that she wasn’t born into the wealth and privilege she navigates so well. Not only is she a role model, she’s a much-dreaded Alpha. She’s got stellar grades. A killer wardrobe. A hunk of a boyfriend (Max, played by “Euphoria”’s Austin Abrams). A popular posse. And, most importantly, a surefire path to her dream future at Yale. Yet no sooner has Mendes’ voice over let us know just how carefully curated Drea’s life truly is (and how swiftly she’s willing to wield her status against those who’d cross her) than we see her fall from grace. A leaked sex tape turns her into a pariah just in time for summer vacation. And so, while her erstwhile friends gallivant to Europe, she’s stuck working at a tennis camp. At least it gives her time to lick her wounds and plan her comeback.
Enter Eleanor. Where Drea is gorgeously put together (kudos to costume designer Alana Morshead, who was clearly having a ball outfitting these various teenage girls as if they were staging a late-’90s indie editorial spread), Eleanor is dowdy and demure. The two hit it off when Eleanor — again, saddled with some clunky voiceover to help smooth the narrative along — insinuates herself into Drea’s life and inadvertently, it seems, ends up setting up the film’s central conceit: Why wouldn’t they each help the other out in settling scores with those who have scarred them? Couldn’t Eleanor worm her way into Max’s inner circle and make him pay for leaking her sex tape, an accusation the “accidental feminist” adamantly denies? And couldn’t Drea stage a hit on that “crunchy lesbian” who, as Eleanor tells is, outed and humiliated a young Eleanor while at summer camp several years prior?
As “perfect crimes” go, their plans are decidedly less violent than those in Highsmith and Hitchcock’s imagination. But not for that are they any less vicious. The two girls, who must keep their distance once school starts up again, soon grow close as they relish the chance to give into their most Machiavellian impulses. It helps that Mendes and Hawke have crackling chemistry. And that both actresses are keyed into the darkly sardonic sense of humor Robinson nurtures throughout. The two, like Talia Ryder (who plays Max’s dry-witted sister and Eleanor’s love interest), Alisha Boe (Drea’s former BFF and Max’s current GF) and Sophie Turner (in a hilarious scene-stealing cameo of a role), really find their groove in Robinson and Ballard’s archly self-aware dialogue.
This is a film where Eleanor can ruefully note that she’s a “Billie Jean King in a sea of Maria Sharapovas” — while reading Highsmith’s novel, no less! — and where she and Drea can come up with the notion of giving off “Glennergy” (i.e. when you look like Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction”) without it ever making you feel like you’re listening in on two wildly literate teen girls set on revenge. Not quite camp, the tone here is appropriately stylized to avoid letting its sincere moments feel didactic.
The film’s tongue may be planted squarely in its cheek but it still recognizes the lurid pleasures to be had in a well-deployed pop-culture reference. Add in the requisite makeover-to-get-the-popular-girls-to-like-you montage, a titillating closeup of a croquet mallet during a pivotal scene, a Fat Boy Slim needle-drop that’ll have you wondering whether “Bittersweet Symphony” will also make the cut — not to mention the presence of Sarah Michelle Gellar herself — and you’ve got the makings of an instantly quotable classic.
With a late-in-the-film twist that’s best left unspoiled and a thematic throughline about why we’re so eager and so comfortable vilifying (and in turn glorifying) such villainy in teenage girls, “Do Revenge” is a frothy delight. It’s no accident its most affecting scene is set to Billie Eillish’s disarming and ironically-titled tune “Happier Than Ever.” Almost functioning like a distillation of Robinson’s film, Eillish’s song begins like a wounded confession and eventually roars itself into a rancorous cacophony, capturing the plights and slights of teenage heartbreak and despair. Song and film alike ask you to lose yourself in such raw emotion — to excuse, even, the intentionally playful grammar faux-pas in its title and to revel instead, in its ultimately winking moral of a tale.