There’s a moment in Netflix’s Senior Year when Rebel Wilson’s time-displaced and 37-year-old Stephanie is back in her high school cafeteria encountering her former rival’s daughter Bri who rules the current landscape from the stratosphere of social media influence. Stephanie asks Bri if she’s trying to be the “popular” girl, which was her prior label and standing 20 years ago. Without missing a beat, Bri says she’s not trying to be popular but more like:
”I’m just trying to be my most authentic, socially conscious, body-positive, environmentally aware, and economically compassionate brand that’s a home for inclusion, focused fashion, food, and fun-filled lifestyles, and if tons of people respond to that then, great.”
To Bri Loves, played by Jade Bender (A Cowgirl’s Story), with her bi-beau Lance (Love, Victor’s Michael Cimino) on her arm and profile, she is consciously, purposely, and totally all of that diatribe. To the rest of us who come from Stephanie’s time (or older), that all might sound exhausting. For the movie, Bri’s massive pronouncement of self-efficacy is a screenwriter’s keyboard drop. It’s an answer for the ages that could not better encapsulate the generational gap being presented and played for laughs by Senior Year.
Turning back the clock to 1999, Stephanie Conway (played by The Nice Guys starlet Angourie Rice) was an Australian import freshman to her affluent high school. Fed by American pop culture and supported by her well-meaning parents Jim and Lydia (Chris Parnell and Lucy Taylor), quickly climbs the social hierarchy to become the cheer captain and top shelf girlfriend to the class stud Blaine (13 Reasons Why’s Tyler Barnhardt). Through it all, she keeps two true-blue best friends of milder stature, Martha and Seth, who encourage her popularity but pine for the less attention-seeking Stephanie they first met.
During the final pep rally performance of the year before prom, her arch enemy classmate and cheer teammate Tiffany (newcomer Ana Li Puig) orchestrates a plot where Stephanie is dropped on the climactic aerial lift. That fall, in silly science-defying movie fashion, puts her in a coma for 20 years. With a rush, Stephanie wakes up with a middle-aged body (Wilson) and a teenager’s memory in a 2022 that couldn’t be more different, meaning more “woke” and “politically correct,” than her 90s-00s era. “Toxic” was a Britney Spears song, not a warning label of cancel culture.
Tiffany (Love Life’s Zoe Chao) married Blaine (This is Us heartthrob Justin Hartley) for the seemingly perfect boujie life Stephanie idolized. Martha (Mary Holland, the scene stealer of Happiest Season) is now the astute high school principal and Seth (Veep cast member Sam Richardson) is the humble librarian in a time when no one really reads anything past their screens. Against doctor’s orders and Martha’s advice, the childish Stephanie gets it in her mind to finish her incomplete graduation year with the goals of regaining her cheer captain title and becoming prom queen.
She finds a cheerleading team is filled with demure rainbow squares (including key new buddies Janet and Yaz, played by Diary of a Future President’s Avantika and Sex Appeal’s Joshua Colley), who wouldn’t know a skirt or spicy beat if they smacked them in the face. Likewise, Stephanie is pitted against the aforementioned Bri for likes and votes in prom culture where antiquated and gender-biased royalty has been retired. Top to bottom, inclusion is everywhere and no one is a loser under Martha’s progressive administrative regime.
The bigger target audience for Senior Year than any current teens are the 30-and-40-something Millennial dinosaurs who lived through their high school years without cell phones and social media. They remember what Stephanie remembers, from the flippant American Pie-esque sexual freedom to the openly tribal Mean Girls-level class system of labels, unchecked bullying, and the interminable status-seeking competition. Reflecting through Wilson’s proxy character, that age of Senior Year viewers will find themselves wondering if they would have a similar or equal high school experience in today’s hyper-connected environment.
That same older crowd will take it a step of severity further and ask themselves if they would even go back and repeat high school now instead of yesterday. They might be the people who lament to present-day youths about how much harder or lamer they had it, passing handwritten notes, making mix CDs, and standing out without the boosts of technology and the boundaries of social media kids have today. Today, the popularity contest isn’t high school, rather it’s the whole world and the whole world is your phone. Folk will either think today’s high schoolers have it easy or have it harder. Either way, they’re likely happy to be done and out, unlike Stephanie.
The growth arch of Senior Year couldn’t be more universal, no matter the time period. Ghost Team One writers Andrew Knauer and Arthur Pielli, with a comedic polish from actor Brandon Scott Jones (who also plays the nerdy guidance counselor) put the notion of fake and arbitrary popularity on blast in favor of universal acceptance of any interest, niche, pronoun, or person. Stephanie thinks she can change that stabilized equity back to the old cliques, and we all know full well she’s wrong to willfully screw over the people that care about her. We’re just waiting for her to see it too, be herself, find her people, and move past the past.
Through all of these little shocks to the system, nostalgia trips, and learning leaps is Rebel Wilson’s bull in a China shop. Much like Ryan Reynolds, Rebel Wilson is at her best playing Rebel Wilson. She has his commitment-to-the bit where her saucy signature personality and quick wit always follow her physical comedic bravery. She tells it like it is and we love it. Like her character, Rebel herself is more beautiful, smart, and funny that we give her full credit for.
Under prolific TV director Alex Hardcastle (Grace and Frankie, You’re the Worst), Senior Year rightly plays to Rebel’s strengths. The script has its set pieces of man-out-of-their-time gags of cringe comedy and big dance numbers (co-choreographed by Brooke Bowe) set to a booming soundtrack, but underlays them with plenty of comparative character development moments that frame who enables and who evolves among the who and what of people and things that really matter. In its own daft way, Senior Year provides plenty of pep and unashamed confidence to let all freak flags fly, even Stephanie’s anachronistic one. The foregone conclusions and predicted celebrations might be obvious, but the fun and frivolity to get there are worth a watch.