The 1999 film She’s All That might have been just a forgettable teen romantic comedy had it not contributed something dubiously enduring to the genre. That’s the film’s much-discussed and much-derided conceit that a character is considered an “ugly duckling” if she wears glasses, and the removal of said glasses turns her into a stunning beauty queen. That may be an oversimplification, but then again, movies of that era were big on oversimplifications.
Rachael Leigh Cook played that character, and she’s back for the gender-flipped 2021 remake, He’s All That. (She plays the main character’s mum, but at age 41, she still looks like she could be the sister of the 20-year-old playing her daughter.) If it’s considered progress that the ugly duckling is now a guy, and that glasses are no part of his “before” picture, then that’s really all that the film offers in the way of progress. It’s certainly modern enough – social media is all over this thing, and there’s the de rigueur LGBTQ element thrown in as an empty gesture toward enlightenment. But in most ways this is as retrograde as it gets.
As in the original film, the story centres on a bet between two popular kids over turning the biggest loser in school into a prom queen – or king, in this case. Padgett Sawyer (Addison Rae) is a social media influencer with nearly a million followers, even at the young age of 18, but her enviable lifestyle becomes considerably less so when she finds her vapid boyfriend Jordan (Peyton Meyer) cheating on her during a livestream. She begins pelting him with a plate of pastries she brought to surprise him, and the meltdown in front of her million followers even involves a bubble of snot bursting out of her nose.
Because she’s the star, we know this is not the real Padgett. She’s just got some lessons to learn. But not straight away. First she makes a bet with her vile frenemy Alden (Madison Pettis) that she can turn a boy of Alden’s choosing into an overnight sensation with just a makeover, using the skills and endorsements she regularly peddles on TikTok. She’s also hoping this will get her back in the good graces of one of her sponsors (played by Kourtney Kardashian, whom we could have done without), who’s dropping her after the live blowup, meaning her college fund is about to go belly up. Alden picks Cameron Kweller (Tanner Buchanan), a guy with shaggy hair who wears his ironic trucker hat backwards, favours punk bands and kung fu movies, and hangs out with a hip lesbian (Annie Jacob) as they tell the establishment to get stuffed.
Guess what? They fall for each other as Padgett makes him over for an F. Scott Fitzgerald party at Alden’s house. And to give you some idea of the out-of-touch Southern California microcosm in which they live, every party attendee has the money for a perfectly authentic flapper outfit or Jay Gatsby suit.
He’s All That itself is pretty out of touch, which isn’t to say that it won’t appeal to the people for whom Netflix made it. It may be asking too much of the film’s core demographic to recognise this apparent critique of shallowness as extremely shallow itself. Social media is one of the film’s limp targets, to be sure, but Mark Waters’ film certainly wants to have it both ways. After all, this movie was made for TikTok fans, so any critique has to be pretty weak sauce. (Star Addison Rae herself came to prominence on TikTok.)
Given that Netflix was behind this movie, it’s kind of incredible they didn’t have more money to give to it. Rarely will you see a film with so many awkward product placements. In the first half hour alone, characters eat Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken, munch on Dorito’s, and even use Bounty paper towels – “the quicker picker upper,” as the ads once proclaimed – to mop up a pool of chocolate milk one of them spits onto the kitchen bench. It seems likely that the target demographic is too young to remember Wayne and Garth lampooning such product placements in Wayne’s World, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t strike them as garish and tacky on some core level of good taste.
There are things that are not bad in He’s All That. In the lead role, Rae has a presence that’s something like sunshine incarnate. She really lights up the screen and it’s easy to barrack for her, even when she’s making poor decisions. Buchanan, who stars on the show Cobra Kai, embodies the analog cynicism of his character in enjoyable ways, even if he’s a bit of a grab bag of character traits. He likes Bad Brains but he also grooms horses? Their relationship is similar to others in films of that era, like Cher and Josh from Clueless, or Torrance and Cliff from Bring It On. (Waters also directed Mean Girls, accounting for more of this film’s DNA.) The dynamic mostly works.
Too little else does. He’s All That can’t decide if it’s a parody of these movies – the students go to a school called Cali High School, whose sports teams are called the Earthquakes – or something more earnest. The middle ground is not very rewarding. Technically it’s a bit of a mess as well, as the camera shakes imperceptibly in most shots, while the editing leaves certain scenes and the dialogue within them feeling fast-forwarded.
The biggest problem, though, is the dated values at its core. It’s not so much that He’s All That is struggling with its predecessor’s notions of what’s “ugly” or “pretty,” but that it doesn’t effectively repudiate the notion that a makeover of any kind is desirable. That’s probably because we are a society addicted to the makeover in a decidedly 21st century way, both “following” the aspirational talking heads on our phones and following the apparent wisdom they espouse. The film does not seem to recognise the tone deafness of a line of dialogue like “My mother’s a nurse. I’ve never told anyone that before.” In a world where Instagram is king and we still care about who is the prom king, no one should have a lowly nurse for a mother, should they? Anyone who dons PPE to save lives during a pandemic definitely needs a makeover, stat.