by Warren Cantrell on October 27, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Minor Rock Fist Up]

A frenzied pastiche of teen, horror, and teen-horror Hollywood tropes, Tragedy Girls juggles several pins, and more often that not, manages to catch them. It follows a handful of busy weeks for two high school seniors as they navigate a 21st century adolescent minefield of peer pressure, bullying, and pre-adulthood angst. This pair, Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp), are knee-deep in prom committee and cheer squad happenings, yet also have a side-hustle: serial killing.

As the movie begins, the audience learns that Sadie and McKayla have been trying to boost their online profile by acting as amateur sleuths in pursuit of a local serial killer. The two are fascinated by the murders in their small Midwestern town and the mysterious perpetrator, but aren’t getting the leads that they had hoped for (or the Twitter followers they expected in the wake of their investigation). Consequently, they decide to lure, trap, and imprison the killer, then commit murders as him so that they can scoop any other leads on the local crimes, thereby boosting their online relevancy.

It is a novel idea for the social media age, and co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre makes a lot of hay out of two desensitized millennials exploring their sociopathy as a means to get Kardashian-level famous. Although it has some parallels in Scream, with some Heathers sensibilities thrown into the mix, the film might be most closely related to a groundbreaking Belgium film from the early 90s, Man Bites Dog, about a fictional serial killer with a film crew. In that film, as in Tragedy Girls, the emphasis is placed on the concept rather than the act itself, and how murderers integrate into the functioning machinery of society at a given moment in time.

Both films manage to keep villainous, unsympathetic characters front and center as the guides for the audience, a feat Tragedy Girls (mostly) pulls off by keeping the murders silly and slapstick. After an especially complicated death that would make Rube Goldberg blush, the line, “that was some Final Destination shit” is uttered, and they are not wrong. The murders in Tragedy Girls are played for laughs, which is hard to reconcile since they are all deliberate, cold-blooded homicides, yet Sadie and McKayla are engaging enough as leads to keep the audience invested. Some teenagers join a band, or play sports to cope: these girls murder and Tweet.

There are a few B-plots regarding Sadie’s budding relationship with fellow student Jordan (Jack Quaid), who happens to be the son of the local sheriff that is frantically trying to keep a lid on things. There’s also the original serial killer, Lowell (Kevin Durand), who spends the majority of the movie bound and tucked away as a script-afterthought. Josh Hutcherson makes an appearance as the flighty ex-boyfriend of McKayla, as does Craig Robinson as Big Al, a local big mouth and small fish swimming in a tiny pond. Both actors lend some much needed bona fides to the picture, which avoids sinking a few times due to these efforts, along with those of Hildebrand and Shipp.

The tone of Tragedy Girls flirts with cartoonish at times, which dilutes the toxicity of the cruel stream running through the middle of the picture, yet also invites some broad characterizations. The parents as portrayed are pretty much clueless, as are most of the adults (teachers, cops, janitors, etc.). There are a few good moments with Lowell and McKayla as the seasoned serial killer tries to turn his protégé against her partner, yet the script doesn’t invest much time in this. The picture keeps circling back to the slights inflicted on its leads, and how bully justice can be exacted with the right attitude, sharp knives, and a little privacy.

The pace of the whole effort is brisk, and is punctuated nicely by a punchy score by Russ Howard. The staging of the murders is ably pulled off, as is the finale, which side-steps a misguided attempt at humanizing its leads in favor of a far more satisfying conclusion. Although the Lowell sub-plot and the difficulty involved in establishing homicidal maniacs as leads keeps Tragedy Girls from realizing its full potential (remember, in Scream, the killers weren’t the heroes), it is all an interesting and fun take on an old genre in a new century.

Opening today at the Alamo Drafthouse, Tragedy Girls is a frothy yet black comedy that earns its R rating via several brutal murders and some barbed dialogue. Surprisingly prescient with its takes on the intersection of social media and teenage peer pressure, the film manages to have a good time while still saying something about the modern world of young adults. A bit loose with its own script at times, not to mention its overall tone, strong performances by its leads and clever sensibilities propel this one forward.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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