A cheerleader wakes up from a 20 year coma and goes back to school.
What the slut! Going from desperate Insta Likes-chaser to putting the woke into woke-up, Stephanie (Rebel Wilson) has quite the journey after being roused from her two-decade coma, even though she never leaves her home town.
This is a fairytale of sorts, with a sleeping princess and a hot hunk to wake her (actually a local TV ad featuring high school boyfriend Blaine Balbo and his Hummer showroom). Like most movie fairytales, our heroine is blonde and pretty. And there’s a happy ever after, though perhaps not for quite the story Steph was originally hoping for.
Steph’s dream, held on to tightly through her big sleep, is to be Prom Queen, from which a perfect life will inevitably follow. According to her there are three ways to achieve popularity: “to be a cheerleader, to work at Abercrombie, and to let guys go in the back door.” Sadly, after Steph wakes up and returns to her old high school in order to graduate, it turns out the cheerleading team has such a flat structure they don’t even jump and wiggle anymore, instead lecturing the audience in rhyming couplets and tracksuits; and while not everyone is a winner every cheerleader is a captain.
Martha (Mary Holland), Steph’s childhood friend, is now principal of their old school Harding High, and she’s abolished competitions (including the Prom King and Queen vote). So far so expected, with the focus on a younger generation of apparent snowflakes who create climate change-related tampon sculptures, eat lunch at one, hierarchy-free table, and perform cheerleading routines about gun control.
It’s wittily done, if standard; and lifted by Wilson’s excellent bumptiousness and a terrific performance from a warm and funny Joshua Colley as Yaz, a gay, nail varnish-wearing classmate who helps her navigate her brave new world. It still doesn’t come close to the delicious humour of the first act of the film though, featuring a 17 year old Steph (a brilliant Angourie Rice). Young Steph inhabits her teen world perfectly, despite or possibly because of the work it has taken to get her there. Now she’s Queen Bee, captain of the Bulldogettes cheerleading squad and, if she can only fight off arch rival Tiffany, heading for Prom Queen. Tiffany fights dirty though; it’s her sabotage that leaves Steph in a coma for 20 years.
Once through the inevitable 2022 culture clashes, what follows is more interesting, as Steph ends up fitting right in. She quickly works out that our new tech is just another way to drive and gauge popularity, and to get one over on one’s rivals. Her initial floundering is no different from 14 year old Steph at the start of the film, dismissed as a loser and making her plan for school domination.
The school still has a Queen Bee, Tiffany and Blaine’s daughter Bri (Jade Bender), a bona fide teen influencer with a Vice profile to her name. Bri insults her new classmate online under the guise of anti-discrimination, and refuses to sign Steph’s Prom King and Queen petition as it’s hard copy and she’s made a “paper-free pledge”. 2022-style shaming is the same as it it ever was, only now it’s hidden by the glare reflecting off a halo of sanctimony.
Unsurprisingly as the film unfolds all the young people actually turn out to be lovely, if anxious. Martha’s changes to the school mean everyone is accepted and safe, the tentacles and permanence of social media notwithstanding (Janet, a clever fellow senior, refuses to be filmed in case footage is used against her when she runs for US president).
The nastiness (of course!) stems from mean mother Tiff (Zoe Chao). I did sigh at the “evil middle-aged mum” trope but I’ll let it go, as it’s outweighed by Steph’s adding of flirty, dirty fun to the cheerleading squad; plus it’s nice to see that the kids are, in every sense, all right.
The performances are spot on (I loved Chris Parnell as Steph’s overprotective dad and Sam Richardson as school librarian Seth, still mooning over her 20 years on); and a Britney Spears tribute, when 37 year old Steph teaches her new friends how to dance, is great fun and rather touching.
That routine, and Steph’s choreography when the Bulldogettes perform on stage at a parent-seniors PTA night, make up the missing piece of the jigsaw. Martha may have created a safe school, but Steph is the grain of sand in the oyster; causing ructions but also allowing Harding High’s class of ’22 to have the fun they’ve shielded or shamed themselves from.
Senior Year is often derivative and heavily signposted, so it’s never going to reach the heights of one of Steph’s more elaborate cheerleading jumps; and clunky product placement masquerading as Insta influencer loot is crass. Some advice from an ex-prom queen Steph used to admire reads like a prepared speech.
Luckily it never drags, and there are enough laughs among the earnestness to to keep it bowling along, including some cracking one liners. I cackled at Steph’s dad’s off the cuff comment when he visited his newly awoken daughter in hospital that “I was this close to freezing you!”
I was 17 in 1988 rather than 2002, but I didn’t feel too lost watching this. After all, Steph is 37 and thinks she’s 17, while I’m 51 and think I’m 37. Plus lots of men wore make-up in 1988, and like our heroine I constantly appear in clothes 20 years out of date and think I look hot.
Cheerily exuberant and often witty, Senior Year is a reminder to teenagers to let their hair down, and to their parents not to assume that (and I’m showing my age here) modern life is rubbish.
Watch the Senior Year trailer now: