Lockdown has enabled a fair few bad habits in me, not least of which is a complete descent into watching trashy television at all hours, with no regards for my intellectual hygiene. So when I saw Netflix recommending a new movie He’s All That, promising a fresh new take on the classic teen movie from 1999 She’s All That, I was easily sold.
To refresh your memories, She’s All That, starring Freddie Prince Jnr and Rachel Leigh Cook, tells the tale of Zac, a freshly dumped jock who makes a bet with his douchebag friends that he can pluck any random girl from obscurity and turn her into a Prom Queen with his coolness alone. Laney is a creative girl who hides her model-level good looks behind glasses and frumpy overalls, and becomes the target of Zac’s quest. Hijinks ensue.
In the remake, gender roles are reversed. Instead, we see Padgett, an Instagram influencer with almost a million followers, who has built her empire off her makeover tips. After a humiliating breakup that’s screened live on Insta, she bets that she can regain her popularity by successfully making over a loser guy into Prom King. It’s not just popularity at stake though - her main corporate sponsor is threatening to pull their support if she can’t gain her followers back, and Padgett (the daughter of a single mother on a nurse’s salary), needs the money. So she picks her target, Cameron, a cynical outsider who hides his movie-star hotness underneath a bad haircut, beanie and plaid shirts. Hijinks ensue.
I can acknowledge that, as a millenial (born in 1989 baby), I’m predisposed to feel nostalgic love for movies that heralded my own coming of age, and to be irritated by narratives grounded in a zoomer reality. But watching He’s All That triggered some grave concerns in me about gender norms, toxic capitalism and the state of the acting talent pool available to Netflix in 2021.
In the original She’s All That, the trope of the jock with a heart of gold was born out with a genuine emotional narrative that peeled back the layers of Zac’s artificial, socially acceptable veneer to display an intelligent, insecure young man riddled with daddy issues who genuinely wanted to forge a meaningful connection with someone despite the pressure he felt to gain the social approval of his peers.
How do we know this? Because on his first date with Laney, Zac takes to the stage in a performance art open mic night, performs a monologue while kicking a hackey sack, and reveals all of the inner turmoil he feels under the pressure from his family and friends to always be perfect. His honesty and vulnerability make Laney see him in a different light, sparking the beginning of their true connection.
In 2021, there is no corresponding meaningful emotional transformation for Padgett. She is a superficial, social media image-obsessed young woman who uses a carefully applied veneer of niceness to avoid authenticity at all costs. But Cameron is still drawn to her. Why? Because on their first social outing, he sees her perform a karaoke version of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream while dancing in a bikini. Something about this sight triggers enough of a connection for Cameron (or at least for his hormones) that he pushes aside literally everything we know about his character’s antisocial tendencies and hatred for his peers and pop music, and takes to the stage to save Padgett from humiliation when she chokes midway through the song. It makes no sense.
By the end of the movie, despite sharing no moments of true emotional vulnerability, Cameron rides a horse across a school oval to sweep Padgett off her feet at prom, and they end up taking a gap year together. There he participates in her social media chronicle of their journey while they trail ride in Portugal, confirming that Padgett is still a shallow, image-obsessed influencer, and Cameron still can’t ride a horse.
At least in She’s All That there’s a genuine chemistry between the lead actors, and enough pieces of connection to justify their final transformations, with both of them changing enough to meet each other somewhere in the middle.
Ultimately, the actual story that He’s All That tells is one of the slow moral corruption of young people over the past 22 years. Zac and Laney were still plagued by social hierarchies, but they were free from the shackles of social media, able to get to know each other privately without the threat of being outed on Instagram, and free from the bullying and treachery of high school when they left each afternoon.
In contrast, Padgett is constantly at the beck and call of her instagram followers, and is encouraged to construct a false identity online by the corporations that want to plunder her youth for their own capitalist gain, a fact her own mother doesn’t seem to have an issue with.
He’s All That confirms that looks are important, and individuality is for losers. The only way through is to conform - Cameron gives up his beanies, hair, plaid shirts and dignity almost immediately after meeting Padgett. It’s pretty clear that he’s thinking with his crotch - and she doesn’t change at all, staying chained to the burden of social media approval.
Whereas Laney doesn’t really change her essential core - yes, she keeps her haircut and drops the glasses. But she keeps wearing her ugly overalls, and when Zac tries to save her from a predatory classmate, she shows she doesn’t need a man by fending him off with a rape whistle and getting herself home safely. There’s a (tenuous, I’ll admit) message of female empowerment undercutting her narrative.
The teen movies that I consumed in the 90’s definitely had their problems. They were the opposite of woke, filled with token black characters, homophobia, fat shaming and gender stereotypes. But usually there was still a moral arc in the character development, and at the very least, the acting was good.
He’s All That failed to deliver any of the potential benefits of 22 years of cinematic and social progress - the diversity in the cast remained token, the gender stereotypes were alarmingly unchallenged, and the acting wasn’t enough bad enough to be engaging - it was just a bit ‘meh’.
The only highlight was listening to the opening bars of Sixpence None The Richer’s Kiss Me trill out during the prom scene … until it, too, was ruined by a poor attempt at a remix.
Verdict? Sometimes nostalgia is best served by taking a peek back in time, not trying to translate the past into the modern era. In this case at least, he really isn’t ‘all that’ at all.