Barely Lethal (2015)

Barely Lethal (2015)
  • Time: 96 min
  • Genre: Action | Adventure | Comedy
  • Director: Kyle Newman
  • Cast: Jessica Alba, Samuel L. Jackson, Hailee Steinfeld, Sophie Turner


Megan Walsh has been training to be an international assassin for Hardman. However while she is on a mission, she notices how other teenagers her age seem to be having fun and enjoying their lives. Desiring a normal life, she bails out of a mission and enrolls in a student exchange program, in the process, being adopted by a foster family. She soon becomes a part of the high school and is subjected to the pressures and life of being in this environment.

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  • A high school student who happens to be a rogue international assassin? That is a solid and promising premise, one that if smartly realised could make for a highly entertaining brew of comedy, action, and drama. The excellent Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the television series, not the movie – was a master class in how to subvert the tropes of a teen comedy into something greater. The recent Kingsman: The Secret Service, with its teenage secret agents-in-training, was a cocksure and energetic entry into the genre. Barely Lethal is the best example of the genre at its most listless.

    Hailee Steinfeld stars as Agent 83, an orphan who has been trained to be a lean, mean, killing machine since she was barely out of diapers. She and her fellow orphans are members of a top secret, government-run organisation named Prescott. Led by Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson), the trainees are taught to be ruthless and without emotion. “It is you and you alone out there,” he barks. “No attachments!”

    Agent 83 has always found the “no attachments” rule a tricky one to follow, but she is so accomplished in everything else that she is the first one in her class to be activated. Sure, she gets to see the world but she yearns to be a normal teenager living an ordinary life and dealing with normal problems, not hunting down American expat turned drug dealer Victoria Knox (a deliciously badass Jessica Alba). It is, however, during that mission that Agent 83 seizes the opportunity to follow through with Mission High School.

    Posing as an exchange student from Canada, she gathers all available intel on the life of a teenager, bingewatching 90210 and Mean Girls. Of course, her eagerness and occasional lapses into black ops jargon make her a prime target for public embarrassment. Of course, she would fall for the self-absorbed cute guy Cash (Toby Sebastian) even though it’s tech geek Roger (Thomas Mann) who genuinely cares for her. Look, there is nothing wrong with trotting out the usual plotlines; the problem is preventing those plotlines from feeling stale. John Hughes’ teen films were done so well, the characters so fully defined, that their drama was genuinely felt. Not so with Barely Lethal.

    The characters are weightless, the narrative scattered, the direction sloppy. Even a moment like Agent 83 realising how confusing, frustrating, and more dangerous high school can be – “Simulated drowning I can deal with!” she wails – falls flat. Consistently one-note and already forgettable as one is watching it, Barely Lethal seems like a film that has been de-gutted and then patched back together without a moment’s thought.

    Part of the problem may be Steinfeld, who is not particularly believable as either a coldblooded assassin or an earnest teen. She tries and nearly succeeds with her natural charm and enthusiasm, but she is undermined at every turn by a lazy screenplay. Agent 83 is someone who can assess people and situations in half a blink; one early scene finds her at the school cafeteria being invited by a group of girls to sit with them. Initially keen, Agent 83 changes her mind, reasoning that the invitation is a tactic to spring a mean girl trap. Barely Lethal could have used more scenes like this which scramble the formula instead of turning a supposedly intelligent young woman into an emotionally stunted mess.

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