"a film that contains, at its heart, a fresh and self-conscious look at the classic American high school movie"

When I first heard the premise of Barely Lethal, the newest film from indie director Kyle Newman, I was prepared to watch a film that continued the trend of finding comedy gold in kids imitating adults. Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass seemed to be its natural parent as it followed the story of a teen brought up to become a gifted assassin, rather like the formidable, foul-mouthed teenager Hit-Girl that shocked critics back in 2010. The reality turned out to be a far milder but a fun take on the classic teen movie that embraces the clichés of the genre but doesn’t quite commit to the action movie twist.

Barely Lethal follows the character of Agent 83, played by the brilliant Hailee Steinfeld, who was taken in as an orphan to tough guy Hardman’s (Samuel L. Jackson) questionable academy for training child assassins. Now a teenager, 83 goes rogue on a mission to take down an arms dealer known as Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) and vanishes out of Hardman’s gaze. Desperate to experience the world as normal people do, she becomes an exchange student and faces her biggest challenge yet: American high school.

For a film that arrives with so much promotional material emphasising the spy-movie aspect, it is surprising that it plays such a small part. It plays out like a fairly intelligent teen movie, incorporating the odd fight scene but for the most part it stays around the high school and its various inmates. This may be partly due to the budget, as any bigger scenes are sometimes marred by some shaky CGI and it is probably for the best that they are kept brief. Interestingly, big name actors like Samuel L Jackson and Jessica Alba actually recede in the shadows of the far bigger characters played by the younger actors. This is actually of benefit to Barely Lethal, however, as it finds its strength in a witty self-awareness of high school movie cliches.

As 83 arrives to her new challenge, she is armed only with an extensive research of well-loved movies of the genre, such as Mean Girls and Clueless. This means that her observations of the events and people around her are always measured against the cinematic version she’s built up in her head - an idea which lends a lot of comedy value. Fans of these types of movies will definitely appreciate this film for that reason, and it continues to exploit this knowing attitude by letting the main plot carry on in a predictable, yet entertaining form until the prom night finale. In a great change from the clichés it actually has a cast in a believable age range - you won’t find any 35-year-olds taking classes in this movie!

The twist that is meant to build on this teen movie format does feel like a small distraction at times. The premise of undercover assassins, instead of elevating the film with another aspect, finds itself dragged down by the clichés of a spy movie. This is fatally presented without the same self-awareness, meaning that the plot plays itself out with little to no surprises. This is unfortunate, as the young cast really do give their all to their respective parts.

Ultimately, Barely Lethal is a film that contains, at its heart, a fresh and self-conscious look at the classic American high school movie, yet is trapped by a spy thriller twist that doesn’t add anything new. Despite this, fans of teen movies are likely to find it enjoyable as it incorporates visual and verbal references to some well-known classics.