The opening sounds of first-time writer/director Olivia Milch’s Dude are the distinctive synths of Dr. Dre’s 1999 hit “The Next Episode”. But instead of Snoop Dogg on the mic, a female MC comes in on what turns out to be a remix of the classic track. The song then gives way to our four heroines freestyling and smoking together in a minivan. The message could not be clearer: these women are here to party, and they can do it just as well as any man, if not better. More than any of its myriad storylines, this is what Dude makes its thesis. It’s unfortunate, then, that these ladies are all dressed up, but have nowhere to go.
Netflix’s latest release stars Lucy Hale, Kathryn Prescott, Alexandra Shipp and rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina in what is purportedly a comedy about four stoners’ last weeks in high school, but turns out to be a heavy (and heavy-handed) dramedy about love and loss. Hale anchors the film as a queen bee reluctant to let go of her life as-is, even as her best friend (Prescott) pulls away, the more she tries to hold on. Awkwafina and Shipp play serviceable sidekicks, given one character trait and one inappropriately-aged love interest apiece. The quartet’s high school problems mostly recede into the background, however, overshadowed by trauma and heartbreak. They still crack crude jokes like every raunchy teen film since Superbad, but rather than act as a reprieve from the interpersonal drama, they awkwardly sit alongside it, only occasionally offering the welcome distraction they were intended to.
The film is set in an affluent liberal enclave in Southern California, complete with permissive parents, far-left teachers and cops who won’t ruin anyone’s life, but this—much like the juvenile sense of humor—serves as a smokescreen (no pun intended), masking the tragedy hidden beneath. This would be a much more effective trick if the filmmakers had considered the weight of these dichotomies. Without spoiling too much, it’s not hard to feel for the shared trauma between Hale and Prescott, but if they’re smoking weed to cope, the film offers us little reason to believe it. The elements of a stoner-comedy and teen drama at times conflict so wildly that it’s easy to be thrown from the narrative, despite impressive performances from all four leads and Alex Wolff as a love interest for Hale.
The biggest misdirect Dude ever pulls, however, is making you believe it has a radical spirit. The creation of a distaff stoner-comedy is in and of itself political, as the genre has long been a boy’s club. Recently, other female stoner fare, such as Broad City, has provided worthy entries, but most have done a better job realizing their place in the pop-culture landscape. Dude ostensibly has four main characters, but only the white pair are connected to the larger conflicts that constitute the emotional weight of the film. Prescott and Awkwafina, while having more interesting problems that are not solved by the end of the film (Awkwafina’s financial woes and Prescott’s alcoholism, which goes completely unremarked upon), are played almost entirely for laughs and never achieve the character depth of their white counterparts.
Similarly, the film pays lip-service to consent, anti-racism, and feminism, but the events of the film run counter to much of their rhetoric. Characters flippantly make fun of ‘retards’ and ‘trannys’; white and affluent characters are treated better by the police than poor people of color would be; the teacher-student relationship that dominates an entire subplot wraps happily. I was constantly reminded of the “Next Episode” cover. It’s cosmetic; Dude has taken a coming of age story, ground it up and rolled into an Apatow themed wrapping, problematic viewpoints and all. This is the kind of film that has the potential to normalize intersectional feminism to a wider audience. While not every female-led film needs to do this, when a film flaunts its politics to this extent, it demands that their audience evaluate them.
This has been a banner year for teen girl protagonists. It’s only April, but 2018 has already seen Thoroughbreds, Tragedy Girls, Flower, Blockers and Little Bitches, in addition to Dude, in theaters and on the various streaming services. Of the six, Thoroughbreds, Tragedy Girls and Blockers have been successes, while Flower, Little Bitches and Dude have faltered. Why? I believe it to be a matter of commitment. Thoroughbreds and Tragedy Girls are both satirical genre exercises that use the teen girl’s place in society as their starting point to make poignant social commentary. Blockers is at its core a big studio comedy that ends up spending more time with the parents than it does the teens. The other three, however, are more confused. Flower, too, is a genre film, but like Little Bitches and Dude, it tries to have its cake and eat it too. All three movies go for cheap laughs and gut-check drama, often back-to-back. This inability to pick a lane prevents these films, Dude especially, from succeeding on either front.
Image: June Pictures