By Mary Sollosi
May 08, 2020 at 06:22 PM EDT
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The 1983 teen movie Valley Girl is, at first glance, an ideal candidate for a remake. It's a cult classic with a great soundtrack and a young Nicolas Cage, but it doesn't rank among the true high school movie greats, lacking the profundity of The Breakfast Club, the style of Clueless, the wit and specificity of 10 Things I Hate About You. It's honestly surprising that a new incarnation of the oh-so-SoCal teen romance took this long — and that it took this shape.

Jessica Rothe stars as Julie, a smart, popular senior living in the San Fernando Valley in the '80s. She's the Valley girl who's got it all: a bitchin' wardrobe, a gaggle of stylish friends, and a totally hot tennis player boyfriend (Logan Paul, whose image as a self-absorbed attention seeker actually benefits him here). Privately, however, she dreams of a life outside her Barbie Dreamhouse world, wondering if her future could possibly hold more than just marriage, money, and clean suburban sameness.

Her perfect pastel life is upended — and those secret hopes begin to creep to the surface — when she meets Randy (Josh Whitehouse), a punk rocker from the wrong side of the hill. The evidently mismatched pair fall hard for each other, and Julie starts wearing a safety-pin earring and neglecting the mall, much to the horror of her Val pals. As the prom — not to mention her whole life after high school — looms ever closer, she must decide whether to give in to the pressures of her disapproving friends and family or follow her heart.

So far, so normal, right? Wrong! Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg twists the tale by making it a full-blown jukebox musical, with the young cast performing popular songs from the decade throughout (Julie & Co. are introduced in a lively rendition of "We Got the Beat" at the mall; they argue by sing-fighting "Just Can't Get Enough" vs. "Material Girl" in an aerobics class). The cast is talented and the numbers are mostly well-staged, but the glossy pop songs, appealing as they are, don't speak well to teenage longing — there is no "Hopelessly Devoted to You" among them (though that doesn't mean the film doesn't do its best to reference Grease).

An ill-conceived framing device presents the story as the reminiscence of adult Julie (Alicia Silverstone) talking to her own teenage daughter. Silverstone's casting almost seems like a good idea if you don't think too hard about it; it appears to be a meta nod to her iconic role in Clueless, but Cher Horowitz is the quintessential '90s teen, and one who barely deigns to go to the Valley for just a cameo. These may seem to be small distinctions, but Valley Girl doesn't do itself any favors by invoking Clueless, which is painted in similarly bright colors but with much more nuance and insight.

This Valley Girl has also been scrubbed of much of the essential weirdness of the original (a love triangle involving a mom comes to mind) and adds a forced feminist angle ("Sally Ride, she's from Encino. She's a Valley girl."). It's hard to become invested in this vision of the '80s, or any of the people populating it, when the film invites its audience to laugh at the decade and celebrate how evolved we are now.

In one scene, Julie tells her parents after getting in trouble for lying about her whereabouts, "It's not like I have some kind of satellite phone device I can keep in my pocket and just transmit to outer space and call you guys whenever I want to." It feels like a line that would get a laugh in a high school theater performance of this musical — which is exactly where it would work best. Real teens in real time straining to hit the high notes of "Take on Me" would give Valley Girl the messy immediacy that tales of high school heartbreak really need; as it stands, the movie is just as slick as the lifestyle it supposedly mocks.

Adult Julie begins her story with the hackneyed line, "Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words." The film may preach that life is better when it's a song that you haven't yet memorized, but its main pleasures still lie in its little winks and familiar beats. Come on, Valley Girl. You can't, like, have it both ways. C+

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