Trained from birth by a secret government agency, Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld) is a kick-ass special ops agent but longs to be just another regular high school girl. Unfortunately a normal life is impossible so long as spy boss Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson) keeps her on a tight leash. On a mission to capture maniacal terrorist Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba), 83 fakes her own death and adopts a new identity as Megan Walsh. Posing as a Canadian exchange student, Megan moves in with the Larsons including divorced mom Mrs. Larson (Rachael Harris, in a variation on her mom role in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) films) and snippy teenage daughter Liz (Dove Cameron) who considers the new girl a total geek. Sure enough, life as an international assassin proves a cake for Megan compared with the perils she faces at high school.
It says something about the pressures facing high schoolers that spy kids and schoolgirl assassins have become such relatable archetypes. Even so, although young adult author Ally Carter's series of 'Gallagher Girls' novels earned a faithful fan following, films like D.E.B.S (2004), Hanna (2011) and Violet & Daisy (2011) were not big hits. The same fate befell Barely Lethal. Directed by Kyle Newman, the man behind teen horror The Hollow (2004), Star Wars-themed comedy Fanboys (2008) and a lot of Star Wars related documentaries and fan films (Newman's wife Jaime King plays a small role here) under the aegis of co-producer Brett Ratner, this indie teen comedy got lost amidst a surprising slew of spy films released in 2015.
The plot is ramshackle and some of the jokey sadism and gunplay sits uneasily within the frame of a light teen comedy. Yet Barely Lethal boasts disarming layers of satirical wit and goofball charm. Early scenes where Samuel L. Jackson - mentoring his second schoolgirl assassin in a row after live action anime adaptation Kite (2014) - trains little girls how to disarm bombs and disembowel enemies come across a little more disturbing than presumably intended. Yet John D'Arco's screenplay has a few waspish one-liners worthy of Heathers (1989). By far the best joke is that Megan's entire knowledge of high school comes from studying teen movies from the Nineties and Noughties. That makes things almost irresistible to those of us that grew up on films like Clueless (1995), Bring It On (2000) and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Hence Megan mistakes a group of perfectly nice and welcoming cheerleaders for the characters from Mean Girls (2004) and falls for guitar strumming pretty boy Cash (Toby Sebastian) even though kindhearted AV geek Roger (Thomas Mann) is clearly the guy for her. Although able to beat up a dozen hit-men twice her size, Megan remains vulnerable in the face of pranks, sarcasm, mind games and manipulative high school bullies until Liz helps her out.
Multi-talented Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld is an appealing, ebullient lead although increasingly impressive Disney teen idol Dove Cameron steals a few scenes with her natural comedy gifts. With D'Arco drawing an endearing relationship between two misfit girls, their comic chemistry yields such inspired moments as the would-be brutal interrogation scene that turns into a girly blub-fest, the dumb jock's confession that turns out to be stolen from The Breakfast Club (1985), mom mistaking a talk about killing someone for the first time for a discussion about losing their virginity and the climax where Megan hijacks a helicopter to chase after her boyfriend. Comedians Rob Huebel and Dan Fogler put in funny cameos as respectively Roger's overprotective dad (who delivers two priceless monologues warning about sex and drugs) and a would-be cool teacher desperate to jam with Cash. Elsewhere, Jessica Alba graduates from lovable spy mom in Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D (2011) to murderous terrorist but weirdly plays her part like Kim Kardashian. On the other hand Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner relishes the chance to play someone besides perennial passive victim Sansa Stark. She excels as a limber sexy psycho badass.