Part of the criticism of Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s recent Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption was that the movie played it far too straight to actually be much fun. By resisting any overt scenery-chewing, histrionic line readings, or sufficiently tawdry subject matter, the parody ended up safer than the material it was sending up. Perfect High, Lifetime’s new effort in depicting the dangers of exposing teenage girls to montages, ends up a straight-faced version of the same problem. It’s neither sufficiently impressive on its own merits to be a quality film, nor is it deliciously trashy enough to make for a pleasurable viewing. To compare it to the drugs on display in the film, it’s the bag of oregano passed off as marijuana to gullible teens, with the assumption nobody involved will notice the difference.
Story-wise, Perfect High is the latest film by the network to traffic in the good-girl-gone-bad trope, this time involving an overachieving high school dancer named Amanda (Bella Thorne) who suffers a brutal-looking knee injury in the opening minutes of the film. Prescribed hydrocodone for the pain, Amanda at first religiously follows doctor’s orders, until her burgeoning friendship with Riley (Daniela Bobadilla) leads to a peer-pressure decision to discover the joys of recreational prescription drug use. We know Riley’s a bad influence, because she wears reasonably cool clothes and bums a pill from Amanda the first time they talk. Soon, our protagonist is awash in drug abuse, as the two of them, along with Riley’s boyfriend Nate (Ross Butler) and Amanda’s requisite love interest Carson (Israel Broussard), begin spiraling into addiction, quickly moving from prescription drugs to heroin, until finally—and fatally, though not for Amanda, because this movie wouldn’t have the guts—they hit bottom.
While Lifetime’s spotty track record for its movies is well documented, it’s especially disappointing here, as the story’s ripe lowbrow potential is emblazoned right onto the promotional posters for the film. The typography apes The Bling Ring’s poster, and the production even hired that movie’s main actor—to play yet another teen seduced by a dangerous lifestyle, for God’s sake. But that first free hit of meta-commentary on the “bad kids” subgenre is followed by the steep price of Perfect High’s utter lack of interest in exploiting its subject matter. The story is doggedly straight-faced, even as Amanda spirals from goody two-shoes into drug-addled vomitorium, nodding off after shooting up at the mall in the middle of the day. The film’s desire to warn kids of the dangers of drugs ends up as more of a warning to kids about the dangers of earnest Lifetime movies.
Which is too bad, because the incredibly game cast shows up ready to play. Thorne is a charismatic and appealing actor who did her time in the trenches on the Disney kids’ show Shake It Up!, and here continues her transition into more mature fare, selling both Amanda’s obnoxious Type-A tendencies and subsequent insecurities that provoke her descent into drug use. The other three leads also do their best to animate some leaden dialogue and infuse the somber proceedings with a spark of life. The scenes that show them hanging out, getting high, and making bad decisions are certainly the most watchable, as they carry the risk of something unexpected and fun happening, before the movie returns to after-school-special land.
It’s almost like Perfect High is scared of having too good a time: It’s the movie equivalent of the middle-school kid who accepts a beer, only to pretend to sip it in hopes of being accepted as cool. Time and again, the film dangles its toes into the shallow waters of trashy fun, only to scramble back to the safety of the lifeguard’s chair. Montages of drug use are fleeting, and quickly followed by stern-faced episodes that underline the characters’ morally inappropriate behavior. Scenes that could potentially offer some cheap pleasures—Riley stealing money from the locker of every member of the dance team, Amanda learning all her fellow dancers have voted her off the squad—aren’t allowed room to go over the top, or even below the belt, for that matter. The sole sex scene is demure and minor, and any other racy potential is strictly off-camera. By the time everyone discovers Riley’s been shooting up, and decides to join her rather than get help, the giddy absurdity of the kids’ poor decision-making has mostly evaporated.
Still, there are minor pleasures to be had, outside of the actors’ performances. The scene in which the kids learn the Oxy they thought they were smoking is actually heroin packs a gleefully illicit punch, as do the moments where Amanda gets to behave like a bitch to her friends and family. And the film, for all its flaws, does a decent job of honestly portraying just how someone like Amanda could embark upon such a foolish path. The injury that threatens her dancing ignites a deep well of insecurity and anxiety that finds its release in her easygoing and attractive new friends. Much like hard drugs themselves, bad life choices can be pretty fun—at first, anyway. But before you know it, you’re nodding off in a mall parking lot, and this time, it’s not because you’re simply bored from watching Perfect High.