“You’re probably going, ‘Is this like a Noxzema commercial or what?’” Cher Horowitz mused in the opening montage of “Clueless,” laughing with friends in her Jeep Wrangler and splurging at Tiffany’s on Rodeo Drive. That scene, set to the Muffs’ pop-punk cover of “Kids in America,” painted a heady portrait of ’90s youth and excess.
Twenty-seven years later, a new version of “Kids in America” — by the indie-pop singer Maude Latour — plays in “Do Revenge” as throngs of rich, Gen Z teens spiral into various states of ecstasy and despair after they unwittingly ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms at a school dinner.
The Netflix dark comedy (out Sept. 16) is full of such winks to its teen film forebears. There’s a guided tour of the school’s cliques (as seen in “Mean Girls,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and more) and a requisite makeover (a staple in “Clueless,” “She’s All That” and so many others). But many of the “Do Revenge” references also serve as a playful reckoning, blending nostalgia with wholly contemporary tastes and issues.
“I’m obsessed with high school movies,” the director and writer Jennifer Kaytin Robinson said. “But, very specifically, this type of film that I just feel like doesn’t get made anymore.”
While in postproduction on her first film, the 2019 rom-com “Someone Great,” she and one of the producers, Peter Cron, began analyzing her favorite ’90s entries in the genre — “Clueless,” “Cruel Intentions,” “10 Things” and “Jawbreaker” — and common threads of campiness and satire emerged. And, with the exception of “Jawbreaker,” they were all reimaginings of classic works. (That would be “Emma,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “The Taming of the Shrew,” respectively.)
Robinson and Cron brainstormed vintage material they could rework in a high school setting. Cron suggested looking to Alfred Hitchcock. “Rear Window” had gotten the teen treatment in the 2007 thriller “Disturbia.” What about his 1951 noir “Strangers on a Train”? Instead of two grown men swapping murders, two teen girls could concoct a plot to “do revenge” of the nonviolent kind on their exes.
The similarities pretty much end there, but from that germ of a concept, Robinson and her co-writer, Celeste Ballard, crafted the acerbic tale of Drea, a queen bee who becomes a social pariah after an intimate Snapchat video she sent to her boyfriend, Max, is leaked to their entire Miami prep school; and Eleanor, a mysterious outsider looking to bring down a girl from summer camp.
“Teenage girls are fascinating. They are these little engines of chaos,” said Robinson, who created the MTV series “Sweet/Vicious” and co-wrote “Thor: Love and Thunder.” She added, “High school in and of itself is its own stage and the perfect way to tell these types of twisty, turny stories.”
She found her leads in the “Riverdale” star Camila Mendes and the “Stranger Things” actress Maya Hawke. In supporting roles are standouts from other recent teen-centric fare, including Austin Abrams (“Euphoria”), Alisha Boe (“13 Reasons Why”), Talia Ryder (“Hello, Goodbye and Everything in Between”) and Rish Shah (“Ms. Marvel”). The assembled cast, fittingly, dubbed themselves “The Revengers.”
Both Mendes, 28, and Hawke, 24, were skeptical about taking on another teen role, but Robinson’s vision and the characters’ complexities on the page convinced them this wouldn’t be a typical return to the genre.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wait, this is really good and really smart. And it’s not just another high schooler. It’s the most badass, psychopath high schooler that I’ve ever read,’” Hawke said of her character, Eleanor. She’s not simply chaotic and crazy, Hawke added, “she’s a hurt person with motive.”
Mendes, who plays Drea, echoed her: “You get this note so much in Hollywood that’s always like, ‘We don’t want her to be too unlikable. She’s got to be likable.’ And then what ends up happening is you get these really one-dimensional female characters. Drea is not that.”
While a leaked Snapchat serves as the MacGuffin and texting is pervasive, the director, along with the production designer Hillary Gurtler and the costume designer Alana Morshead, didn’t try to force too many Gen Z-specific trends. Instead the three millennial women tried to create a vibrant “girl world” that blended the past and the present in a colorful way.
“Between Gen Z and millennials, you’ve got an incredibly smart audience, visually attuned more than any other previously,” Gurtler said. “So instead of pandering directly to somebody, it’s like, let’s build this incredible world, and their tastes and vision will meet it.”
Morshead modeled the Rosehill prep school uniforms after those common in South Korea but reimagined them in a Miami-fied pastel palette of lavender and mint. She sourced accessories and streetwear from small labels run by women and people of color, including Miracle Eye, the Mighty Company and Muaves, and added a smattering of vintage couture where the budget allowed.
But perhaps most important in crafting the film’s overall feel, Robinson said, was the music. To achieve a no-skips CD experience like the movie soundtracks she loved as a teenager, Robinson opted for hits by Hole, Meredith Brooks and Fatboy Slim alongside newer needle drops from Olivia Rodrigo, Muna and Caroline Polachek. She hired Este Haim and Amanda Yamate to create an original, neo-noir-tinged score, and enlisted the music supervisor Robert Lowry to pull it all together.
“I didn’t really care about them being the most recognizable songs. I wanted them to elicit a feeling in you,” Robinson said. “It was less about the name-iness of the artists or the songs, and it was way more about, does the song bring you back to a time?”
Visual nostalgia is likewise key. Teens play croquet on a lawn à la “Heathers.” The popular kids perch on a fountain just as they did in “Scream.” There’s a “10 Things”-inspired paintball date. Eleanor drives a vintage luxury car in a nod to Sebastian’s prized possession in “Cruel Intentions.” And to explicitly tie up the connection between “Do Revenge” and ’90s pop culture, Robinson cast Sarah Michelle Gellar in a small but satisfying role as Rosehill’s headmaster, virtually the only adult character.
Yet, unlike the homogeneity of many high school films of the past, the filmmakers wanted “Do Revenge” to more broadly reflect the youth of today. It centers the stories of Latina and queer teens and, aspirationally, doesn’t allow characters to hurl insults about physical appearance or sexuality. These girls might dub someone a “human Birkenstock” but never a “full-on Monet,” a shift Robinson said she felt a “responsibility” to convey.
“We tried to root it all in character, rather than appearance or identity,” Robinson said. “You can be biting. You can be satirical. But those surface-level jabs, those types of mean comments, I hope that they just go away. They’re so boring. If you’re going to be mean, be smart.”
Here, the popular bad boy is a nail-polish-wearing, earring-adorned trust fund kid whose androgynous style was partly inspired by that of Harry Styles. “I liked updating that from the mean guys in those ’90s movies we’d seen before,” the costume designer Morshead said. “He doesn’t have to be the stereotypical, brooding jock.”
Max’s villainous nature hides behind performative ally-ship — he starts a school club called the Cis Hetero Men Championing Female Identifying Students League — and faux feminist gestures.
“I know so many people like that in Hollywood,” Mendes said. “There’s definitely this ongoing joke with me and my female actress friends where we talk about how there are so many Maxes in Hollywood, it’s insane. They’re adored by the public, but all the people in the industry know what they’re capable of, and it can be incredibly frustrating.”
In fact, in “Do Revenge” no one is what they seem on the surface. The lines between good and evil characters are blurred, and many who do terrible things find their way to accountability and redemption by the film’s end.
“I think that cancel culture is stunting people’s want and ability to actually grow past the wrongs that they’ve committed,” Robinson said. “This whole film is about saying, ‘Yeah, you did some bad stuff. You made some bad choices, but every day is a day where you can become better if you want to turn the corner.’”