Spare parts of high school comedies from “Peggy Sue Got Married” to “Mean Girls” and beyond have been torn asunder, then sewn back together to create “Senior Year.” In other words, this vehicle for producer-star Rebel Wilson isn’t organic even as a genre homage; its Frankensteinian assemblage always feels more imitative than inspired. Nonetheless, if Alex Hardcastle’s effortfully high-spirited Netflix feature isn’t exactly good, it’s still good enough to provide reasonable throwaway fun, thanks much less to the material than to a cast that elevates it when they can.
Introduced as “just some average boring invisible girl who had no friends” in 1999, Australian émigré Stephanie Conway (Angourie Rice) determines on her 14th birthday to start doing better. Three years hence, a methodical push toward popularity has paid off: She’s captain of the cheerleading squad, has assumed possession of the boyfriend, Blaine (Tyler Barnhardt), of deadly rival Tiffany (Ana Yi Puig), seems to have the prom queen crown sewn up and can afford not to even notice that both her BFFs (Molly Brown’s Martha, Zaire Adams’ Seth) are crushing on her. Alas, an acrobatic not-quite-accident orchestrated by the aforementioned rival at a pep rally ends all this social perfection with a splat.
Twenty years later, our heroine (now played by Wilson) wakes up in the suburban U.S. hospital bed where she’s lain comatose all that time. After absorbing the shock of being a mental teenager in a 37-year-old body, Steph decides she’ll finish everything — including the 12th grade — she’d started in a different epoch, on the exact same terms. Of course, the surrounding circumstances have changed considerably: Martha (Mary Holland) has become Harding High’s principal, Seth (Sam Richardson) its librarian, and the reigning student mean girl is Brie (Jade Bender), daughter of miserably married yuppie ‘it’ couple Tiffany (Zoe Chao) and Blaine (Justin Hartley).
More jarring still are the cultural shifts that have come to pass, upending all Stephanie’s notions of what’s hot and what’s not. Diversity is embraced, competition frowned upon to a degree that there is no longer a prom king and queen. The cheer squad still exists, but under Martha’s coaching, it’s quite a different entity, doing little routines about global warming and inclusiveness. Nonetheless, life starts reshaping itself into something very much akin to where it was headed two decades earlier, proving that some behavioral currents (cattiness, backstabbing) run deeper than wokeness. This being 2022, however, rest assured it will all end with everyone drenched in a fountain of empathy and self-acceptance.
The screenplay by Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli and Brandon Scott Jones (the last also playing a supporting role) scatters some good lines amid an equal amount of duff ones, never quite arriving at a consistent tone. Nor does veteran TV director Hardcastle lend proceedings the kind of high style that might accentuate the script’s more absurdist notes, despite decently colorful design contributions. This fluff gets pretty attenuated at nearly two hours, padded by cutesy on-screen graphics along with ideas lifted whole from “Bring It On,” “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” et al. Neither the retro raunch that emits from Stephanie’s mouth nor the satire of present-tense political correctitude is funnier than it is labored by any wide margin.
Yet “Senior Year” is amiable enough, even as it frequently tries too hard. The real laughs are almost all incidental ones sporting a feel of improvisation, with Holland, Richardson, Hartley and Chris Parnell (as the heroine’s widowed father) particularly adept at such business. Then there’s Wilson, who hasn’t made a film since one very busy 2019, wherein her four releases ranged from the good fortune of “Jojo Rabbit” to the misfortune of “Cats.” Even she can’t salvage some of the worse stabs at ersatz teenspeak here (e.g., “What the slut?!”). But she remains a naturally gifted comedian who largely pulls together this derivative conceit (perhaps most directly indebted to “Strangers With Candy” and Jamie Kennedy vehicle “Kickin’ It Old Skool”) through sheer force of personality and riffing performance chops.
While it gets too self-congratulatory at the end — throwing the sort of end-credits dance party that starts 10 minutes too soon — “Year” has already earned goodwill via one sequence a bit earlier. Then, chastened Stephanie lands in a cab driven by Alicia Silverstone, the erstwhile “Clueless” star tasked here with demonstrating the sober satisfactions of hard-won adulthood to a terminally immature protagonist. It’s a brief, understatedly dramatic grace note that, like a lone decor touch that “ties the room together,” makes this overlong, overamped comedy seem better than it did before.