Monday 1 July 2019

The Question in Bodies #24: Jennifer's Body (2009)

Jennifer's Body: most underrated teen horror movie of the last two decades, or most underrated teen horror movie ever? Bold claims, probably. But it's definitely underrated.

Spoilers in this post, as ever. 

That audiences largely ignored Jennifer's Body is not so surprising: it was victim to a staggeringly miscalculated marketing strategy, all Megan Fox in a very short skirt with only a tiny bit of cosmetically attractive blood, and prominent mention of Diablo Cody, screenwriter of teenage pregnancy comedy Juno in the strapline. And OK, in 2009, that was how you'd market a film starring Megan Fox, then a fixture of the covers of glossy magazines and mainly known for the way Michael Bay's camera ogled her bum, and not so much for the fact that she is an intelligent and talented actor who was unafraid to speak her mind, although that last point would do brutal, irreparable and unjust damage to her reputation and career quite soon after that. And in 2009, everyone loved Juno because it was cutesy and sweet and sparky in the dialogue department and no one seemed to notice that it was actually a pretty angry film, about the tiny everyday injustices that young women routinely face, hidden behind its twee indie folk aesthetic.
So the marketing targeted people who wanted either Megan Fox being hot, or a sweet hipster comedy, or Megan Fox being hot in a sweet hipster comedy. And that meant that many of the people who wound up seeing it utterly hated it, and many of the people who should have seen it didn't. Because while Jennifer's Body is definitely funny, it is a howl of rage anchored by intelligent pitch perfect performances from Fox and her co-star, the almost as underrated Amanda Seyfried. Nothing about Jennifer's Body is safe. Nothing about it is cute. It has teeth fully as sharp as the ones Jennifer grows in the movie.

Maybe if more people knew it shares a name with a song by Hole it might have found an audience:
You're hungry, but I'm starving
He cuts you down from the tree
He keeps you in a box by the bed
Alive but just barely

He said, I'm your lover, I'm your friend
I'm purity, hit me again
With a bullet, number one
Kill the family, save the son himself, himself

The pieces of Jennifer's body
Found pieces of Jennifer's body
Found pieces of Jennifer's body

Or maybe that wouldn't make a difference; it's a shame the song isn't on the soundtrack, really.

The indifferent reaction of critics is more baffling. I can only put it down to teen movies, especially teen movies written by, directed by and starring women, being somehow not respectable, somehow not worth serious critical attention, and I get the impression that recently people have picked up on how great it is, but that's a bit too late really.
Jennifer's Body plays tricks on you. It hides its meanings, it gets things past you. A prologue suggests a disturbing future for its protagonists. Needy Leswicki (Seyfried) appears at the window of a bedroom in which Jennifer Check (Fox) lies, languid but sort of ill looking. Then we see Needy in a secure psychiatric facility, delivering a brutal beating on an orderly and getting thrown into a locked isolation room. Seyfried, in voice-over, references where she is, and what she's become. But it's vague, hard to tell where Needy is honest and where she is lying. We return to a past.

So Jennifer and Needy (a telling diminutive of Anita), high school seniors, have been best friends since they were tiny. And you'd think they'd have naturally grown apart by now, since Needy is the studious, straightforward Good Girl, and Jennifer is chief cheerleader and a Bad Girl, in the way that society constructs a Bad Girl. They are best friends forever. They do everything together. Their friendship is of course abusive and codependent. Needy tells us that sandbox love never dies. Really, she's telling herself that. Jennifer controls her less confident friend, batters her with coded controls. When they go to a gig, their understanding supplies tacit rules of how Needy must dress so as not to upstage Jennifer in her quest to seduce the lead of the no-account band playing the local venue. The band, Low Shoulder, are depressing and basic (if Jennifer thinks they're "all stylish and shit" that's as much an indicator of her own narrow horizons as much as theirs), and their lead singer, Nikolai (Adam Brody) has designs on Jennifer almost immediately. Needy clocks this immediately, and tries to warn Jennifer, but this is the point of her being there, and even the gig ending in disaster, in an inferno that claims the lives of many of the young people in the town, can't stop Jennifer getting into the band's van.

Later, Jennifer will turn up at Needy's house, incoherent and covered in blood, vomiting black slime, ravenously hungry. While she appears fine the following morning, she begins to display supernatural powers which she uses to murder and cannibalise boys.

We'll discover that the band attempted to sacrifice Jennifer in a rite to Satan, to become famous and successful and "rich and awesome like that guy from Maroon 5", which is a hilarious and utterly brutal line, a horrible indictment of the low bar these guys are hoping to cross, of their stupidity, their inability to see that talent only works when it's coupled with sensitivity, their absolute bankruptcy as artists. In one line, we see a bunch of basic chancers, prepared to murder for the sake of being, well, still shitty but much more successful. But then, if they were aiming for the status of being someone actually half decent, they wouldn't be sacrificing virgins to get good. Robert Johnson just met a guy at a crossroads (legendarily); their laziness and stupidity prevents them from seeing that a ritual murder in a rite they got from five minutes on Google is superfluous.
The rite works, in that they become hugely successful after an entirely inaccurate story of their heroism at the bar disaster begins to circulate, but also it very much doesn't. The problem is that the rite needs a virgin. And well, as Jennifer herself observes, she's "not even a back door virgin" and when it's not done to a virgin, the victim becomes possessed. And the unfolding of the plot has Jennifer preying on boys, and Needy working out the truth and trying as hard as she can to stop Jennifer taking her own boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons), before it's too late.

It's funny, and it's gory, and it's wildly entertaining as a teen horror movie, but what makes Jennifer's Body really great is how the film uses the possession of Jennifer to meditate on a whole bunch of things.

The film constantly points at the fetishisation of young women's bodies, even to the point of abuse. When Jennifer is hungry, her hair and skin become, well, less beautiful, except that's ridiculous because of course it's Jennifer, and as Needy points out it's just "ugly for her." But young women's appearances are ruthlessly judged on minute, granular points. Jennifer's perfection and lack thereof is this constant point of anxiety, and to be perfect she'll eat boys alive, and they'll scream and beg in their death agonies. She won't feel guilt about this: they're clueless and might not individually deserve their fates, but in her eyes they're complicit in this, complicit in this constant rating, complicit in systems that make a young woman easy prey for a bunch of basic stereotypes with ridiculously narrow horizons. When she discovers then that her body is now indestructible, she engages in recreational self harm, watching the cuts and burns heal as she inflicts them on herself – the scene where she's on the phone with Needy and she idly burns her tongue with a lighter is, in that sort of context, sort of chilling. It's consequence free self-harm, all the pain, all the catharsis of pain, but no permanent damage, no self-inflicted scars, and no self-inflicted shame.
The friendship between Jennifer and Needy is described by one girl as "totally lesbigay", and there's something to that, the way that Needy clutches Jennifer's hand at the gig, the way they talk about "playing boyfriend and girlfriend" when they were small. Jennifer comes on to Needy more than once, and has access to her body in the way that even Chip doesn't. For Jennifer, these things are ways to control Needy, because Needy is in love with her friend. Like any number of real teenage friendships, this includes romance, but that is far more complex and painful than simple constructions of sexuality. Needy doesn't even realise she's in love with Jennifer, or if she does, she's in denial. Jennifer knows, and uses it.

The way in which young women construct their friendships, and how they are expected to construct their friendships, is often prescribed in unhealthy ways. Over the last few years I've witnessed a couple of cases of "sandbox love" turned sour among teenage girls, and I'm witnessing these things as an outsider, as an educator and a parent, so my understanding is flawed and incomplete and will never be entirely correct, but I look at the way that Jennifer and Needy relate in Jennifer's Body, at the rules of their friendship, the grounds it works on, and its ultimate disintegration, and I see truth in that. It feels real.

We assign monstrousness to teenage girls. We monster their sexuality, we monster their friendships and we monster their bodies.

Jennifer's Body is a funny film, and it's a smart film, and it's a brutal film, but mainly it's a true film. It presents a world in which teenage girls become part of the structures that beat them down, ready for adulthood. Needy's final escape is in this sense wish-fulfilment: she gets her revenge, she gets to opt out of both the literal and figurative imprisonment of her life, and she gets to opt out of adulthood. This is of course the perfect ending, the only ending, really; Needy, too, gains the powers of a demon, but while Jennifer uses them to enforce the stereotypes she's been pushed into, Needy goes on her own mission, and this isn't a mission to dismantle the patriarchy or anything like that, this is her own mission, her own direction, her own plan. This is for her. Because the only way she can escape is to escape the expectations of the world, good and bad, for her future, her body and her friendships.