In the 1990s, when teen films were interested in adapting classic works of literature into stories about the pains of being in high school, we got Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That. While not equally received by critics, all three were immensely popular and ended up as classics in their own right. Such lasting influence has sparked an adaptation of an adaptation: A gender-swapped reboot of the latter Pygmalion iteration entitled He’s All That, further modernized for the social media and influencer age of 2021. In 1999’s She’s All That—following the basic outline of the early-1900s George Bernard Shaw play—the popular class president and generally all-American Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.) makes a bet that, after being dumped by his girlfriend Taylor (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), he can replace her with any girl at his high school, and make her popular and desirable just by being with him. So, Zack’s friend Dean (Paul Walker) chooses basket case art girl Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook). In an attempt to revive Zack’s popularity, he has six weeks to make this dorky girl into a prom queen.
Directed by Mark Waters, who once helmed major teen films like Freaky Friday and Mean Girls, He’s All That doesn’t deviate too hard from the original’s basic outline. But—as a young millennial who doesn’t necessarily cling to the teen films of her day with any ferocity; came of age as the empire of MySpace fell, and as Instagram and the now-deceased Vine changed the course of what it meant to be internet famous; yet is still decidedly out-of-touch with today’s youth culture—the film is hard to write about. He’s All That is, yes, a nightmarish, joyless commentary on influencer-beholden adolescence told through the crutch of nostalgia and starring a charisma-less TikTok star, but it’s hard to know if one is merely an example of “Old Man Yells at Cloud” or if the teenagers of today are truly living in a Hell on Earth. I mean, isn’t this what adults thought about my life when I was 17? The “kids these days” with our noses in our cellphones, once too concerned with how many friends we had on Facebook?
Padgett Sawyer (Addison Rae) is her generation’s Zack Siler—a pretty, ambitious, college-bound high school senior, though not class president like Zack was. No, Padgett is an Instagram influencer in a world bound to follower counts, views and clout. She sells makeup at the behest of a corporate sponsor (Padgett’s liaison played by Kourtney Kardashian) and takes in upwards of $3,000 per video. This is to the point that she basically takes care of herself and the payments that need to be made on the dumpy little house where she lives with her overworked nurse mother (Cook, in a role that amounts to little more than an extended cameo). Padgett is dating Jordan Van Draanen (Peyton Meyer), a loathsome viral video star, until she catches him cheating on her in his trailer while on-set for a video shoot. After Padgett goes viral over her freak-out at Jordan—in which a snot bubble is captured dangling out of her nose and she is promptly given the derisive nickname “Bubble Girl”—her popularity and followers decline and her sponsorship is dropped, taking her college money with it. A stark contrast from the original film, as Padgett’s popularity goes hand-in-hand with her whole future.
So, her persuasive friend Alden (Madison Pettis) challenges her to the same bet to which Dean once challenged Zack: Pick an unpopular boy at her high school and turn him into prom king for a chance at regaining her followers, her sponsorship and favor at her high school. Padgett is a makeup aficionado, so the idea that she could make a guy over and turn him hot does make an abundance of sense. Alden singles out Cameron Kweller (Tanner Buchanan): An anti-social, hipster photographer who only hangs out with one friend, Nisha (Annie Jacob) and listens to music dubbed “weird old stuff no one else listens to,” by his insufferable sister Brin (Isabella Crovetti). Music such as Bad Brains and Bad Religion (kill me). Cameron also considers himself a proper cinephile, enjoying deep-cuts like Kurosawa, kung-fu and Kubrick. “That is a lot of Ks,” Padgett remarks, overlooking the very obvious implication of three Ks in a row that I guess returning screenwriter R. Lee Fleming Jr. did not consider either.
Flipping the class distinction tables of the first film, Cameron is more well-off than Padgett—a fact she keeps hidden from Alden and their third friend, Quinn (Myra Molloy), both deemed “trust fund kids” by Padgett and her mother. Padgett attempts to gain Cameron’s favor by helping him around the horse stables he spends time at and worming her way into his life, eventually giving him that makeover and bringing him to a major 1920s theme party called “Drop It Like It’s F. Scott.” And while Cameron initially finds Padgett just as unbearable as much of the audience of this film will, she naturally, slowly manages to win him over.
He’s All That is everything that you probably thought it was going to be. Yes, it employs the sterile Netflix house style: The shallow, emotionless cinematography, shaky camerawork and schlocky production design that makes half of the platform’s original output look like it was all shot for a sitcom. No, none of the characters are likeable. Yes, the dialogue is mostly exposition dumps (here’s something surprising though: There is an inexplicable joke about ass play). No, none of the actors are particularly good at acting (besides Cook, who is perfectly functional as the stock “mom character”)—and yet they all still manage to act circles around Miss Addison Rae, proving that being the highest-earning TikTok personality does not necessarily translate into movie stardom.
Rae’s acting is as uncanny as if she were an alien doing her best attempt at playing human, but it is hard to feel like it warrants any genuine criticism: She’s never actually acted before, she was simply dropped into this film in the hopes that virality on social media would translate to film. Is it really her fault, then, if she Cheshire Cat smiles so much it feels like there is someone behind the camera pointing a gun at her? As if it isn’t in her contract to look sad or ugly? Whether at the orders of producers, Netflix, TikTok or a shadowy man called Mr. Roque (whose office exists in a basement somewhere underneath Hollywood) pulling the strings of upcoming talent, you can feel the movie trying to sell Rae as an actress just as her character attempts to sell her audience makeup products. “This is the girl,” someone other than Angelo Badalamenti must have instructed during a boardroom meeting with Netflix, pointing menacingly to a picture of Rae.
There is, however, a delightful little cameo appearance made by the equally delightful Matthew Lillard—who portrayed the guy Taylor leaves Zack for in the original film, obnoxious Real World star Brock Hudson—as the high school principal. Lillard seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as the only actor in this film who possesses the ability to be genuinely funny.
The most unsettling thing in the film, however, is the way it portrays our current social media culture—how much follower counts are inseparable not only from many teens’ sense of worth, but their entire lifestyle. Documenting one’s young life for the world to see has become an integral part of coming of age—followers and clicks and views really matter, just as much as your MySpace “Top Friends List” placement once did. And social merit isn’t just based on high school popularity anymore, but on your ability to sell yourself to an audience. It’s hard to comment on this without sounding out-of-touch, which I definitely am, especially as someone who grew up as these same social media sites were only starting to take hold. But how different, really, was my time in high school, now close to a decade past, spent capturing hundreds upon hundreds of photos with my friends to upload to Facebook, recording funny videos to upload on YouTube and taking selfies for Instagram that we would spend the next few hours painstakingly fretting over the amount of likes on?
But the thing that really differentiates between my time as a teenager and the current teenage experience is how much of being a young person is focused on influencer culture. Teenagers are becoming salespeople, garnering upwards of 1M followers on places like TikTok and Instagram and nabbing corporate sponsorships to sell detox teas and teeth-whitening strips. It’s the craven capitalism of it all, how we not only must fret over our appearances and our social standings, but over our abilities to sell ourselves and make money. Perhaps, as was illustrated in She’s All That, we’ve always been selling ourselves in one way or another; if once only socially, capitalism has made it so that it must be blatantly fiscal too.
He’s All That does attempt to make some sort of meaningful commentary on this very phenomenon, ringing entirely hollow as its TikTok star attempts to moralize on the façade of social media presence, yet continues to hold her internet persona and follower count dear. Yes, maybe things are bleak now in the world of He’s All That, but there’s no point in distancing myself from it, because my world, too, hinged on click-based merit—on friends and followers, on finding the right selfie angle, on presenting oneself in a way palatable for an audience largely comprised of people you don’t know. My world, the world that gave us the ubiquitous “duck face,” created this one.
Director: Mark Waters
Writers: R. Lee Fleming Jr.
Stars: Addison Rae, Tanner Buchanan, Madison Pettis, Rachael Leigh Cook, Matthew Lillard, Peyton Meyer, Isabella Crovetti
Release Date: August 27, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.