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‘Tragedy Girls’ puts an Instagram filter on the teen slasher, with mixed results

Jake Harris
Alexandra Shipp and Brianna Hildebrand in "Tragedy Girls." Submitted photo.

“Tragedy Girls” is not as groundbreaking as “Scream,” and its point about the effects of social media on today’s youth gets lost amid the film’s many gruesome deaths, but those looking for a black comedy satire in the vein of “Heathers” won’t be disappointed. 

McKayla (Alexandra Shipp of “X-Men: Apocalypse” fame) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand of “Deadpool” fame) are two small-town high school seniors who are best friends. They’re cheerleaders, president and vice president of the prom committee ... and they also happen to run an online show called “Tragedy Girls,” where they use their obsession with death to document real-life tragedies and mine them for clicks.

Unsatisfied with their following ("We’ve only got one RT, and it’s your mom"), they stage a trap where Sadie uses her date as bait for the town’s local serial killer, Lowell (Kevin Durand, of “Hey, I know that guy from that thing” fame), so that they can trap Lowell and learn his ways. That way, they can do the killing themselves, report on it with insider knowledge and up their “like” count. (“We’re on the same side, you know,” Sadie tells Lowell. “We want the same things. We just don’t know everything. That's where you come in. We need a teacher.”) 

In the hands of another director, that premise alone would take up an entire film. But in the hands of Tyler MacIntyre (”Patchwork”), those events transpire within the first 10 minutes. The rest of the film isn’t really a teen slasher. It’s more of a teen friendship movie/romantic comedy with a side of gore and stabbing.

Make no mistake, there’s lots of blood and a lot of killing, with a body count firmly in the triple digits. But the killings are set pieces that reflect the state of McKayla and Sadie’s friendship and advance their emotional stakes as well as the plot. There’s even an “I miss you” montage towards the end of the movie when their friendship is tested, just like in a romantic comedy. 

Never mind the casual attitude this film has toward murder; the real subversion here is the decision to place a platonic female friendship in the trappings of a romantic comedy and decorate it with some blood. The fantastic, sincere performances from Shipp and Hildebrand help make these girls likable, and if you aren’t quite rooting for them, you are at least invested in their friendship.

Similarly, the look of the film isn’t shocking on the surface. Shot in luminous, Disney Channel lighting, the film’s Instagram-filter sunshine look is juxtaposed with its subject matter, while some of the gore, to quote McKayla, is “some straight up ‘Final Destination’ (expletive).” A fight with Craig Robinson’s fire chief Big Al is a highlight. 

Where the film stumbles is in its satire. That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments. After the first death at the hands of the Tragedy Girls, there’s a montage where the town goes through the process of modern day social media grieving: “He was such a  great guy.” “I’m so scared.” “Death is just an inevitable part of life. we have to, like, treasure the time we have, or whatever.” The film also skewers how quickly the media capitalizes on tragedy and the mob mentality that can come from seeking an answer to unsolved crimes. 

And it’s not an accident that every murder the girls commit is done because the victims have done something to take the attention off McKayla and Sadie. The twist is that the victims are also vain and selfishly motivated themselves (one girl gets killed because she questions the girls’ prom committee authority, yet she is also the same girl who built a Lending Library solely to get a scholarship; another guy gets killed because he wouldn’t give the girls a shoutout on Instagram).

But instead of just leaving it at that, writers MacIntyre and Chris Lee Hill insert a scene where a teacher blatantly states the film’s thesis, calling the Tragedy Girls “shallow” and taking them to task for their “narcissism” and “sociopathy” in the wake of the many murders that have happened in town. You don’t need to have those words spoken out loud for you to have them on your mind. And if the film’s point is that social media creates narcissism, it undoes that argument on its own with a predictable revelation in the last five minutes.

Playing it straight would have been the subversive way to go here, but in the end, “Tragedy Girls,” like its protagonists, is too smug for its own good. And, much like the Instagram “me” culture it wants to satirize, it looks deep on the surface but ends up being too shallow in the end. It’s fun to watch, though.

‘Tragedy Girls’

Grade: C+

Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Brianna Hildebrand, Kevin Durand, Nicky Wheland, Craig Robinson, Alexandra Shipp, Rosalind Chao, Jack Quaid

Rating: Rated R for strong bloody horror violence, and language including some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Theaters: Opens Oct. 27 at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and Regal Arbor 8 at Great Hills