After the release of Netflix’s bubbly (and appropriately bubbleheaded) teen rom-com He’s All That, a contingent of millennials will no doubt take to social media to eviscerate this gender-swapped remake of the 1999 modern-day Pygmalion narrative She’s All That. “They can’t mess with a classic,” they’ll decry. “This one sucked!” they’ll carp. “Ew, there’s a Kardashian in it!” Don’t heed the outrage brigade; they’re merely thinking with their nostalgia oblongatas.
As someone who was just the right age for She’s All That when it debuted — 10 years old and guileless compared to actual teenagers who knew they were too old for this shit — I can assure you that He’s All That is really no worse than the first film. Both star cutie-pie leads, employ snappy one-liners and sufficiently satirize the prevailing media frenzies of their day. (For everyone who will roll their eyes at He’s All That’s obsession with social media influencing and TikTok performatism, please see She’s All That’s focused skewering of the Real World franchise and MTV culture at large.) Both films are silly fun. Some might not like the newest one simply because it’s not “theirs.”
Now, do I like She’s All That better? Yes. Somewhat. The film imprinted on me at a young age, sure, but I genuinely believe its performances are much stronger than the ones in the 2021 film. (I mean, the original supporting cast did include Kieran Culkin, Clea Duvall, Paul Walker, Gabrielle Union, Matthew Lillard, Milo Ventimiglia, Kevin Pollack, Alexis Arquette and post-Oscar Anna Paquin.) It also got the most out of a feature film budget, in contrast to the remake, which has a direct-to-video aesthetic.
But as a connoisseur of Netflix’s cheapie and chaste teen comedies, I can vouch that there’s no question Mark Waters’ He’s All That is the best of that particular bunch. Thanks to R. Lee Fleming Jr.’s well-paced script, the film contains just enough vinegar to counterbalance all that rom-commy high-fructose corn syrup. (Fleming is also the credited screenwriter on the original film, though rumors persist that M. Night Shyamalan either script-doctored or entirely ghost-wrote that screenplay.)
She’s All That, awash in the grimace-worthy lingo of the Y2K era, stars Freddie Prinze Jr. as a high-achieving king bee whose gorgon girlfriend leaves him for a Real World has-been. Seeking revenge against his status-obsessed ex, he accepts a frenemy’s challenge to transform the school’s lowliest worm into its prom queen. Naturally, he and his project fall in love.
Like many of the early-aughts teen comedies inspired by classic literature and mythos, She’s All That — a take on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady — was crass but effective: Every dude is a squirming dick, and every girl is a delightful bitch, including little art nerd Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), who’s such a dweeb even the Goth chicks bully her. She can hold her own, though. With her waifish frame and snarky demeanor, Laney embodied the Gen X feminine ideal, even when she was covered in paint splatter.
In He’s All That, both a reboot and a teased continuation of the original, TikTok personality Addison Rae takes on the role of the smart, popular high school royal who, in the wake of total disgrace, accepts a bet to make over the most hopeless loser in their school. Curvy, peppy Padgett — a name that evokes a discount shoe brand or a species of bird, such as, say, a shrieking padgett — is a primped teen lifestyle influencer who presents a false face of perfection online in order to accrue scholarship money through paid sponsorships.
In the opening moments of the film, we watch as Padgett preens in front of her ring light and smartphone camera, answering makeup advice questions from her legions of fans just minutes after waking up. Her bedroom is a millennial pink haven, accented with rosy magentas and creamy corals. The space is so lush it seems to exude a golden aura. But as soon as Padgett steps out of her bedroom to say good morning to her exhausted nurse mom (Rachael Leigh Cook, credited only as “Mrs. Sawyer” to goad She’s All That fans), we’re hit with the grungy, gray-tinted reality of her real life. Padgett’s online persona is all glamour. Not even her best friends know her family is working-class.
When Padgett discovers her white-boy rapper boyfriend hooking up with some skag, she completely melts down live on social media, shattering her prim facade and losing her valuable spon-con partnerships. She also becomes a meme, “Bubble Girl,” thanks to a hilariously ill-timed snot-shot. To turn her life back around and re-earn the trust of her former business associate (kue the Kourtney Kardashian kameo), she hatches a plan to sculpt her high school’s bleakest creature into its sexiest commodity and document it all on her feeds to rebuild her follower base. Her dupe: Cameron Kweller (Cobra Kai’s Tanner Buchanan), the moralistic alternative kid everyone rightfully loves to hate.
We all know the type. With his Joy Division T-shirts, smelly gray beanie and dank long hair, photographer Cameron personifies a definitive type of obnoxious post-Fight Club, mushy-hearted, wannabe-anarchist, know-it-all agent provocateur. (“Wait, he made one tweet in 2019, and all it said was ‘No.’ ” reports one of Padgett’s friends during their recon mission.) He’s a little bit grotty with his patchy pale skin and misbegotten facial hair, but he’s ultimately well-meaning and frankly alluring just as he is. It’s almost a shame that Padgett will hotten him up in the same way Ally Sheedy’s Allison was defanged and ruined by the end of The Breakfast Club.
Rae, who’s acting talents may be best described as emerging, is still sunny and warm enough in the role that Padgett comes off as overeager rather than loathsome. Buchanan, on the other hand, should be the real motivation to load up Netflix for some quality background watching this weekend. Playing Cameron with craggy pretension, he reminds me of a young Val Kilmer. The young actor has a gift for sardonic comedy, even when the script falls into formulaic territory in the latter half. Overall, Buchanan and Rae have a cute sort of chemistry … and seemingly about 800 teeth between them.
He’s All That may be a flattened reflection of its predecessor, but both films are charming enough to get away with about one anal sex innuendo joke apiece. I’ll accept the birth of the She’s All That cinematic universe so as long as we someday get a spinoff sequel about what happened to Clea Duvall’s monied Goth tyrant.