Writer and director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson knows exactly which movies inspired her to become a filmmaker. "I could tell you it was watching Fellini, but it was watching Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You, Can't Hardly Wait, Cruel Intentions," Robinson tells Metacritic. "Those are the films that I used to watch over and over again and that is what I, as a filmmaker, wanted to make. I wanted it to be the art that I put out into the world."
Robinson has already left her mark on film, television, and pop music. Her 2019 movie Someone Great, which she also wrote and directed, helped send Lizzo's two-year-old single "Truth Hurts" to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Chart. Her 2016 television series Sweet/Vicious about female teen vigilantes is often lauded by fans and critics. Most recently, Robinson shared co-writing credit with Taika Waititi on Thor: Love and Thunder.
With her latest release Do Revenge, Robinson is honoring her love of '90s teen flicks by putting a twist on tropes while also paying homage to style and soundtrack of the era.
The film centers on Drea (Camila Mendes) and Eleanor (Maya Hawke) who team up to enact revenge on classmates who wronged them. It takes inspiration from Patricia Highsmith's Strangers On A Train (in fact, it was originally going to be titled Strangers), but no murders take place in this one. Instead, Drea wants to destroy her ex-boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams) after he leaks their sex tape, while Eleanor tells Drea she wants to take down her former campmate Cassie (Ava Capri), who allegedly accused Eleanor of being a sexual predator.
In an effort to cover their tracks, Eleanor and Drea agree to complete each other's acts of revenge after the teens have a chance meeting at tennis camp. But Robinson and co-writer Celeste Ballard built in a twist: There was nothing chance about that meeting, and Eleanor actually has bigger plans in mind.
This is because it was Drea, not Cassie, who outed and implicated Eleanor years earlier — an event that had a hugely detrimental effect on Eleanor's life, but one that Drea forgot, even as Eleanor tells her the story, substituting Cassie's name for Drea. Eleanor enters into their arrangement with ulterior motives, but they end up forming a bond that surprises her, and then she must decide whether to continue her mission to destroy Drea or maintain their newfound friendship.
The result is part camp, part '90s teen tribute, and part ode to the intensity of female friendships in high school.
Clueless especially makes an impact on the look and feel of the film, with the Mighty Mighty Bosstones' "Knock on Wood" and The Muffs' "Kids In America" playing in pivotal scenes. Alisha Boe's Tara sports braids in Do Revenge that appear similar to Stacey Dash's Dionne' 'do in Clueless, while Max looks like he took fashion inspiration from Justin Walker's Christian, and Drea appears to use the exact same pink fluffy pen as Alicia Silverstone's Cher. Add to that a group of teens playing "Light As A Feather" from The Craft, a paint fight scene ending in a kiss a la 10 Things I Hate About You, and we're only just scratching the surface on the tributes to '90s teen flicks that can be found in Do Revenge.
To fully celebrate the several nods to iconic films and break down how the characters made their own mark on the teen genre, here, Robinson talks to Metacritic about crafting the perfect time traveling soundtrack, blurring the lines between victim and villain, and scoring her dream '90s teen film queen casting.
Teen movies are typically very clear on who is the victim and the villain, but in getting revenge against those who bullied them, Drea and Eleanor also hurt several innocent bystanders, turning themselves into bullies. How did you determine how far you were willing to have them go and if they needed to be redeemed by the end?
I set out to make a movie where everyone is the hero and everyone is the villain. That was very much the intention. It's kind of allowing characters to live on the spectrum. Good and evil feels too heavy for this film, but I do think that everyone has this duality and everyone has this thing when you're young that you just feel things so intensely. You're gonna feel big and you're gonna make mistakes in a big way. I wanted to make a movie that was true to that experience.
Examining the characters and really coming back to character and saying, "Does this choice feel earned, does this choice feel right for Eleanor, for Drea, for Max, for Tara, for whoever" — that to me is how you find the line.
Were there any moments of bad behavior from any character that gave you pause about including?
We had a lot of conversations and there were a lot of people who said, "I think you should cut the car accident." That was something that came up a lot. The other thing that I considered and was cognizant of is tone. This isn't a slice of life. It is meant to be a fun, popcorn movie that doesn't necessarily get made anymore. I think as a filmmaker you have an internal barometer of where you think you can take it and how far you can push the edge. I hope the emotionality of the piece feels grounded, but I did want to push the boundaries of where we could go.
While there are big things that I hope reflect no teenagers' high school experiences [such as] I hope no one has hit their friend with their car, I do think that they are grounded both in the world that we created and the character choices that help you get to the end of that arc.
Even though Eleanor came into her relationship with Drea under false pretenses, it felt like their bond had moments of genuine emotion. What did you need to see happen between them to feel a turning point?
There were more steps in Eleanor's plan in the script. Once I got into the edit, what I realized was that if she is always puppet-mastering this and there is never a moment where she was maybe going to give up the plan and just be friends with Drea, it's hard to have a genuine moment.
Her plan kind of stops at them teaming up and then she is just going along with it. Then [she] does find this love for Drea — like, "Oh, maybe she has changed." It's obviously Drea's choices and the way that Drea handles not getting into Yale and Eleanor moving closer towards her other friends that then makes Eleanor turn the engine back on for the plan, which to me, was not necessarily in the original script.
Teen films do excess in such a fantastical way. With Do Revenge, it almost felt like the set and costumes and soundtrack played double duty as entertainment for the audience and as a distraction from Eleanor's original plan. What are some of your favorite hints about Eleanor's plan that the audience may miss on first viewing?
My favorites are all the subtleties in Maya's performance that we put in. [Maya and Camila] are both so in character when Eleanor is in the car, and she tells Drea the story [of being outed at camp] and Drea interrupts her and says, "What?" Maya, as Eleanor, kind of gets flustered. That wasn't scripted. Cami was just really in the scene and so was Maya. They both just disappeared into their characters and made these choices. Maya's reaction is my favorite Easter egg because when you watch it back, you know exactly why she gets flustered, and it's such a beautiful performance.
Maya and I had this grand plan where she shot every scene three ways. She did evil Eleanor, she did more of a beta Eleanor, and then we did a middle place. We dialed up and dialed down so that I would always have different shades of a performance. Maya is incredible.
One of the biggest reveals in the film is '90s teen film queen Sarah Michelle Gellar as the headmaster. Did you write the part with her in mind?
Yes and honestly, I didn't think she'd say yes. It was more like, "Yeah, let's try for that," but then she read the script and enjoyed it. We met, and she's the kindest, most wonderful, most generous [person]. I'm so excited that she's back to acting. I know that she took a break, but I'm so glad that she's back doing this. I'm hellbent on writing something else for her.
As someone who grew up on 1990s teen films, the soundtrack for Do Revenge was like a time machine for me. The soundtrack plays a huge role in the film both as a tribute to older films and cementing it in 2022 with current artists. How important was picking the right songs for each scene?
Music is really important to me. I worked with Rob Lowry, who is a wonderful music supervisor and a great sounding board. The soundtrack for this and the soundtrack from Someone Great, those are my babies. To me as a filmmaker, so much of a story I access is through music. How can we emotionally tell this story with music?
There is an arc to the soundtrack, and it mirrors the Easter eggs and the world and the camp tone. The soundtrack is both new artists and discovery, but I think it works for millennial and Gen X, and for Gen Z, the discovery is Third Eye Blind and Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and "Flag Pole Sitta." I think that those songs being present in the film, for an older audience, you might not necessarily know why, but I think it's hopefully going to elicit a memory in you and a feeling from when you were young. That was really important for me to be able to weave that together so that the music is really the heartbeat of the film.
The film ends with an instantly iconic scene of Drea and Eleanor driving on the highway in Miami while singing Meredith Brooks' "Bitch." What was it about this song that made it worthy of a spot in the final scene?
The song that I wanted as they rode into the sunset was "You Gotta Be" by Des'ree. Once we got into making the movie I was like, "I love that song, but it's not the vibe." This is an acidic pop-punk, Olivia Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, Harvey Danger, Hole [feel]. "Bitch" felt like them kind of encapsulating their arc, especially for people who are going to interrogate their likability at the end of the film. "Bitch" was like my answer to that.