Ever since Rebel Wilson had her breakout in 2011’s Bridesmaids, her comedic persona has been built on her quick wit, her natural Australian accent, and her physicality due to her body size being larger than her co-stars. But Wilson made a choice in 2020 to lose a good amount of weight, and her new Netflix film Senior Year is her first chance to show that she’s funny at any size.
Wilson plays Stephanie, a 37-year-old woman who comes out of a 20-year coma after a high school cheerleading accident. Obsessed with being popular when she was younger, she convinces her best friend Martha (Mary Holland), who’s now the principal at their high school, to let her complete her senior year.
She’s soon confronted by the fact that the world, and specifically high school life, has changed mightily during her absence. Smartphones and social media now dominate the landscape, and popularity is dependent on things like the number of Instagram followers someone has rather than, say, being the captain of the cheerleading squad. But Stephanie is no wallflower, and she sets out to bring as much of 2002 to 2022 as she can.
Directed by Alex Hardcastle and written by Andrew Knauer, Arthur Pielli, and Brandon Scott Jones, the film is notable for how well it plays with the tropes of high school movies while subverting them at the same time.
Stephanie becomes quick friends with Janet (Avantika), an Indian girl; Yaz (Joshua Colley), a gay boy; and Neil (Jeremy Ray Taylor), a slightly chubby boy, an oddball group that would normally be played for laughs because of their outsider status. But it soon becomes clear that they have forged their own path and are completely comfortable with their spots in the social structure of their school.
Likewise, Stephanie’s new nemesis, Brie (Jade Bender), is the daughter of her old nemesis, Tiffany (Zoë Chao), but the film presents her as a multi-dimensional person. She still wields her popularity like a queen with a scepter, but she also believes in protecting the environment and has a boyfriend, Lance (Michael Cimino), who’s unafraid to play with gender norms in his clothing.
The filmmakers also do a great job making jokes about obvious things and then quickly moving on. Much could be made about how Stephanie is unfamiliar with technological advances, but after a series of small jokes, she’s using them just like anyone else. They also don’t dwell much on her being older than everyone else; her interactions with old classmates is enough to drive home the point, and so they just let her act like a normal student while at school.
One of the best decisions the filmmakers make is allowing time to set up the story properly. The film begins with the story of the younger Stephanie (Angourie Rice), and they spend a good 15 minutes detailing every aspect of her life. They lay the groundwork for many of the jokes that come later in the film here, and those jokes wouldn’t work nearly as well had the opening sequence been just a few minutes. It also allows for the filmmakers to continually compare and contrast life in the early 2000s to life in 2022, jokes that land nearly every time they bring them out.
Wilson has always been a very confident actor, and she controls the action in every scene that she’s in. While her newly svelte body plays a factor in how the character is portrayed, it’s her charisma and fearlessness that make her extremely funny. The long list of supporting actors complement her fantastically, with special notice going to Chris Parnell as her dad, Chao, Bender, Colley, and Avantika.
Senior Year could have been just another high school comedy that uses the stereotypical jokes we all recognize. But it rises way above that level thanks to some stellar writing and a lead performance by Wilson that cements her as one of the best comedic actors of her generation.
Senior Year debuted on Netflix on May 13.