The Heart and Soul of Jennifer’s Body

| January 25, 2018

If there’s anything regarding personal experience with cinema that’s fascinating to look back on, it’s the way in which one’s tastes evolve over time. In September 2009, I had just started eighth grade, was about to turn thirteen years old, and would not discover my asexuality for almost another four years. Also around the time was the release of some trashy horror film starring Megan Fox, who was confidently on her way to becoming the twenty-first century equivalent of Sharon Stone. On the poster, Fox sat on a desk with her eyes gazing through the camera, legs crossed, wearing heels and a schoolgirl outfit with the words “HELL YES!” scrawled on a chalkboard behind her. Oh, and emerging from the desk was a hand, ostensibly that of a murder victim, and “From the Academy Award-winning writer of Juno” was on the top of the poster.

It wasn’t that the sex-driven marketing was lost on me—if a teenage boy isn’t already being virile enough, then he’s probably being conditioned to be more virile. Nevertheless, teenagers—and especially teenage boys—are idiots, thus my underaged friends’ sneaking in to see the film on opening weekend on the promises set forth by the marketing, using ticket stubs for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as VIP passes. Their feedback after opening weekend? “God, that was so gay.” And while that may be a wildly inaccurate and problematic summation in terms of intent, the movie is indeed very gay, especially for a 2000s studio film.

The existence of the film is bizarre in and of itself. Following the financial success and ultimate Academy Award win for her screenwriting on 2007’s Juno, Diablo Cody returned with her heightened dialogue and pop culture-savvy humor to what most may call an excessive degree with Jennifer’s Body. Karyn Kusama, whose success with 2000’s Girlfight was demolished by the disaster that was Æon Flux five years later, was attached to direct, while Juno director Jason Reitman stayed on to produce alongside others behind Cody’s breakout hit. Almost everything about Jennifer’s Body pointed to a trash fire, and upon my first seeing the film in 2010, I found it to be a disaster. The characters were annoying, it couldn’t decide on a genre, and none of the dialogue felt authentic. But again, middle schoolers are stupid—I was too. (But now, of course, I know everything.)

I didn’t understand that Jennifer’s Body blended its Heathers-times-ten dialogue and ironic humor to explore the corrosive bond between two girls who claim to be best friends, the possessiveness and jealousy in adolescence on display literally and allegorically. The film carries heavy themes that are depicted with enough distance that the audience can enjoy the absurdity of its content while also digesting the allegorical qualities of the narrative, which touch upon American society’s connection to rape culture, celebrity worship, and friendship.

Spoilers for Jennifer’s Body follow.

In the small town Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota, Anita “Needy” Lesnicki (Amanda Seyfried) and Jennifer Check (Fox) have been best friends since childhood. Now in high school, Needy is bookish, timid, and dating nice guy Chip (Johnny Simmons) while Jennifer is the archetypal bombshell. In spite of this, the two girls have held onto their friendship because, according to Needy’s retrospective voiceover, “Sandbox love never dies.” When the two go to see an indie band called Low Shoulder, a suspicious fire spreads and destroys the venue; during the chaos, lead singer Nikolai (Adam Brody) coerces a shell-shocked and intoxicated Jennifer into his van.

The band, believing she is a virgin, sacrifices her to Satan for fame and fortune, but since she wasn’t a virgin, the plan backfires and she becomes possessed by a demon. To maintain her beauty, she goes on to murder and eat the boys at their high school while Low Shoulder’s popularity and rumored heroism capture the town, ending in Jennifer devouring Chip. Needy murders Jennifer and destroys the demon in the process before she is caught and sent to an insane asylum, which she escapes from in order to hunt down Low Shoulder for the pain caused to Needy and all of Devil’s Kettle, ultimately slaughtering the band in their hotel suite just in time for hoards of fangirls to stumble upon the carnage.

Jennifer’s Body is a script that’s acutely aware of its place within popular culture. It isn’t so much a horror film as it is a teen film that utilizes the horror genre in order to make a dark comedy with allegorical qualities about the possessiveness, jealousy, and insecurities that arise during adolescence à la Carrie. With a non-chronological plot and a trust in its audience to understand the absurdity of its premise, it maintains its focus on the characters involved, playing with the archetypes of teen films. Its dialogue is knowingly stylized and satirical in its sardonicism, the small-town characters being products of the allure of adulthood and its presentation through the media. Diablo Cody occasionally overdraws her wit to a distracting—and once outright contradictory—degree, but it’s hilarious and representative of the culture of its time. With the emo kids, the Fall Out Boy poster over the head of Jennifer’s bed, and a pop-punk soundtrack on its sleeve, this might be the most late-2000s movie ever, comparable in a way to how Clueless and Scream are emblematic of the mid-’90s.

What makes Jennifer’s Body more than just amusing is the emotional depth—it’s frighteningly accurate at emulating the grandiosity with which teens react to any personal issue. Needy’s character arc from kind and idealistic to jaded and nihilistic goes against the redemptive narrative of the hero’s journey and is logical within the mythology and tone of the story. Jennifer’s behavior and dispensing of micro-aggressions throughout the movie is never depicted as desirable but instead pitiful with varying degrees of ironic humor.

The downfall of a shallow soul who is, allegorically speaking, raped and left for dead, is still captured with enough of a disconnect to remain entertaining from a literal perspective. Cody pities girls like Jennifer; she pities how their reliance on shallowness prevents them from being anything more than an object. Jennifer is a victim who becomes a predator, but instead of exacting her revenge on the men who turned her into a living hellscape, she targets her aggressions at the males around her that could possibly objectify her once again. The jock, the goth kid, the nice guy whose attention is set on a lifelong companion instead of her—they’re all fair game.

With Needy’s retrospective point of view, the film also demonstrates the irrevocable damage caused by such abuse and the indirect effects it has on others. It’s a story that plainly uses Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left as a starting point: two small-town teenage BFFs go to see a band play; they get intoxicated; and tragedy strikes, instigating vengeance at the hands of those closest to the victim. In Craven’s debut, the parents get to thrust justice upon the

 

archetypal evil that exists outside of suburban life, but in the world of Kusama and Cody, parents are nearly nonexistent—friends and pop culture are all that matter. It continues to tie itself together as a story with layers, with themes including with grief, celebrity worship, and how the former leads the masses to the latter in the name of coping.

The most pervasive and outward subtext of Jennifer’s Body, though, is the homoerotic tension between Jennifer and Needy. It’s clear from the opening that the two are “lesbi-gay” for each other as they wave to each other in slow motion while Black Kids’ “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance With You” plays like a Greek chorus. Similarly, the two hold hands while watching Low Shoulder perform, only for Nikolai’s guyliner-infused charm to wash over Jennifer like a siren singing a sailor into the sea. There’s a moment of domestic sexual assault in which the newly possessed Jennifer pins Needy against a wall, kisses and nibbles at her neck, and shoves her against a doorframe before disappearing into the night, and there’s later the make-out scene that was marginalized to pretty much just being the centerpiece to all of the film’s trailers.

After all is said and done, the girls’ climactic fight is on Jennifer’s bed, only for Jennifer’s mom to walk in on them as Needy plunges her knife into Jennifer’s chest. (Talk about awkward.) It’s something that’s indicative of the raging emotions presence during adolescence, a time when a high school student could admire and talk to their best friend for hours on end without paying equal attention to a significant other. And despite the relationship between Needy and Jennifer that lie at the core of the film, Needy clings to Chip through thick and thin and becomes his avenger of justice after his death, an underlying sense of compulsive heterosexuality influencing characters’ decisions.

Similarly, the emotional abuse that Needy suffers at the hands of Jennifer deepens the protagonist’s arc, its allegorical relationship operating logically within the context of the story and its universe. When Needy and Jennifer go to see Low Shoulder perform, the scene operates both as a setup for the inciting incident and a date between the two of them. When Jennifer returns to Needy’s house, eats her food, and vomits black bile over her kitchen floor while covered in blood, Jennifer is a blood-hungry demon dying for another meal; she’s also a drunk spouse stumbling into a love one’s territory and making a mess. As Needy learns more about what happened to Jennifer on the night of the fire, Jennifer tries to coerce Needy into not telling anyone else about the monster she has become.

Jennifer isn’t just a bad friend whose sins are made literal by way of demonic possession, but she’s also a manipulative partner who gaslights others into submission. The shifting dynamic between the two girls is more than a toxic friendship; it’s also more than a nerdy girl trying to stop her friend for the better of society. Jennifer’s Body is also about an awkward, timid high school student who finally gains the agency to rebuff the immorality of a popular girl, only to become punished and ostracized by society.

All the while, the plot blends Cody’s knowledge of teen movies, the horror genre, and the structure and themes of rape-revenge tale into a piece that proves to be as emotionally realistic as it is outwardly ridiculous. It takes jabs at the teen culture of the late-oughts: its fashion; its music; the faux-intellectualism of the “dark and emotional” emo kids. Nevertheless, it’s kind to those who fall victim to Jennifer, touching on their respective lives and allowing their deaths to contribute to the shift of Devil’s Kettle as a town. “No one seemed to care anymore,” Needy laments via voiceover after the funeral of Colin Gray (Kyle Gallner). “Sorrow was last week’s emotion.” Their deaths may be in vein in the universe of the story, but from a screenwriting perspective, they thankfully aren’t.

Cody’s writing meshes the voice and satire of films like the aforementioned Heathers with an updated take on the antagonists and climactic set pieces used in seminal films like Prom Night and others within the late twentieth-century renaissance of teen horror, injecting a female voice into a male-dominated genre and presenting it with gusto and energy. All the while, Kusama really does direct the hell of this movie, and it’s a shame that her efforts here went unnoticed. De Palma-esque deep focus and dutch angles are stylized but rarely draw attention to themselves, and the balancing of tones cements the film’s feet in on the ground while its head is encouraged to float into the stratosphere. The camera is placed strategically, and the use of bold, saturated colors by cinematographer M. David Mullen (who would go on to do The Love Witch) plays up the extremity of its characters’ emotions—it also just looks really good. Kusama and Mullen stumble from time to time—let’s be real, they obviously aren’t Kubrick and Alcott—but Plummy Tucker’s editing manages to stitch it all together nicely.

Some of the most commendable effects of Kusama’s direction involve the performances that she elicits. Fox’s work is truly fantastic as she plays the role straight, letting Cody’s glib dialogue speak for itself while she plays with her image like an emo, campy, mirror-universe version of what Scarlett Johansson would eventually do in Under the Skin. Seyfried’s wide eyes and timid physicality are at once analytical and tentative, and her decay feels honest. The cast is also stacked elsewhere—Amy Sedaris and J. K. Simmons have small roles as Needy’s mother and the girls’ teacher, respectively, the latter with a claw for a hand and an endearingly dorky accent. But at the end of the day, it really is Cody’s movie, and any movie that has a teenage girl say, “… you should be happy for me, because I am have the best day since, like, Jesus invented the calendar,” is an automatic win in my book.

The commercial failure of Jennifer’s Body is something that’s understandable given its hipper-than-thou humor and horrific marketing campaign, but its critical failure is still something that makes me a bit sad. It’s possible that some of its reviews had to do with the theatrical cut’s flaws, which feature some small but substantial changes at the hands of the producers. Kusama’s director’s cut was released on the Blu-Ray under the sexier moniker of an “unrated version”, and it’s something that remains closer to the filmmakers’ visions. Supernatural horror, teen comedy, social satire, and adolescent drama are placed into the blender that is Diablo Cody’s razor-sharp set of teeth, making for a smooth cocktail that is often times bitter and sweet but sillily intoxicating all the same.

Despite the heavy themes that fuel a majority of the subtext including but not limited to the effects of rape and the ways in which emotional manipulation undermine friendships, it’s a movie that allows the audience to revisit the heightened emotional space of adolescence. Luckily enough, the film has had a bit of resurgence with the Tumblr and Letterboxd crowds in recent years, and that’s something that I fully support. And if you can’t support Jennifer’s Body, just know that Roger Ebert did, so there. Or as Jennifer would say, “You’re lime-green Jell-O and you can’t even admit it to yourself.”

About the Author:

Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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