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Netflix's He's All That updates a classic with mixed results
Netflix‘s new gender-swapped update of 1999’s She’s All That is here, but it has some trouble grasping what worked in the original.
When TikTok influencer Padgett Sawyer (genuine TikTok influencer Addison Rae) is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, she bets her friends that she can turn the school’s biggest loser into the Prom King. But once she starts spending time with misanthropic Cameron Kweller (Cobra Kai’s Tanner Buchanan), she discovers his softer side and falls for him. After a Katy Perry duet, a suspiciously easy makeover, and some major prom drama, can they be together despite their differences?
With appearances by She’s All That actors Rachael Leigh Cook and Matthew Lillard, along with a certain iconic needle drop, the film is a love letter to its predecessor, but it doesn’t quite manage to stand on its own.
Updating a classic
A lot of what He’s All That does to update She’s All That is pretty clever. The new film’s focus on TikTok influencers (including a main role for Rae and a bit part for Kourtney Kardashian) is more than just a bid at being current with Gen-Z viewers. It’s a direct nod to the original.
She’s All That included MTV’s The Real World, with a main character dating one of the show’s stars. This tied the movie into the emerging reality TV boom of the day. Comparing high school hierarchies to celebrity culture was a smart move, and it’s one that He’s All That recreates quite well, with teen influencers standing in for the cable TV stars of yesteryear.
Check out: Netflix’s Sweet Girl review
He’s All That also conspicuously gender-swaps the central couple — a bit less cleverly. The bet at the center of both films can work in either direction, but at its core, it has to lead to some kind of interesting character development. He’s All That doesn’t really give us that.
This big sticking point for me was that Padgett isn’t carelessly cruel the way Freddie Prinze Jr.’s Zack was in the original, and that softens the blow of her perceived betrayal.
He’s All That adds some depth to its “mean” lead
She’s All That was built on opposites. A rich, thoughtless jock who has everything handed to him picks the shy, bullied artist whose single dad only just makes ends meet. That did admittedly make for some two-dimensional leads.
He’s All That’s Padgett isn’t rich. Her single mom scrapes by to make sure they can live in the rich neighborhood that will give Padgett access to better schools. She’s not mean at all, but rather thoughtful. We first see her bringing gluten-free croque-en-bouches to school for her popstar boyfriend because she cares about him and his new food restrictions.
And Cameron isn’t really bullied. Rather, he actively alienates his classmates. He thinks he’s better than them. In truth, he actually does need an attitude adjustment.
This premise lives or dies on the tension between the main characters.
These are realistically complex characters, and Rae and Buchanan have terrific chemistry. He’s All That deserves some credit for avoiding cookie-cutter teen stereotypes (up to a point). But this all makes the stakes of Padgett’s bet feel lower. Padgett crosses a line, certainly, but it’s actually pretty easily forgivable when we see how genuinely kind she is and how much disrespect she has to put up with from holier-than-thou Cameron.
Maybe this whole trope was killed when Not Another Teen Movie gave it a thorough send-up in 2001, but there still needs to be more tension between these two. Lovers from different worlds need to butt heads a little harder to sell the formula. Valley Girl got it. Titanic got it. The original She’s All That got it. But He’s All That plays it too safe, never letting us get mad at either of its two stars.
The premise gets a bit lost in the mix
By updating the basic premise of She’s All That to add depth to its main characters and bridging the gap between cool kids and losers, He’s All That waters down its own themes quite a bit.
The premise of the original works because it’s the jock who has to grow and prove himself to the unpopular girl. She gets a superficial makeover (loses the ponytail and glasses), but she doesn’t actually need to change to impress him. He has to learn why what he did was wrong and why he misjudged her from the jump.
He’s All That takes all of that away. (Well, we still get the makeover, in this case getting rid of Camron’s beanie and Stooges t-shirt.)
But there’s nothing wrong with Padgett. Not really. The bet isn’t very kind. But it plays out a lot less mean than in the original. That’s mostly because Cameron is just rude and unpleasant to be around. At least at first. And she was never mean to him — or anyone — to begin with. Winning the bet just means finding his softer side so that he’s less of a jerk to the people around him.
The film has some pretty funny dialogue. “You don’t deserve my croque-en-bouche, you croque-en-douche,” is a great line. And it has some of the quirkiness that made the original fresh, fun, and just plain weird (an impromptu synchronized dance-off at prom, anyone?). But it settles for a twee romance when it could really dig into its own messy, central conflict.
That would make for something much more satisfying.