Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl is one of the best '80s teen comedies. It's smart and funny, with a sharp perspective on socioeconomic and class lines. Remaking it as a goofy Mamma Mia-esque musical isn't necessarily the worst idea in the world, but the new version – shot in 2017 and just now being released – is intermittently bizarre in the approach it takes. While pleasant and occasionally even fun, the film pales in comparison to its source material. This is clearly aimed at young people nostalgic for a fantasy version of a decade they weren't part of. Those of us who were actually there will scoff.
The picture gets off on the wrong foot with the addition of an unnecessary wraparound segment. Julie Richman (Alicia Silverstone) relates the tale of her first love to her teen daughter. The film then flashes back to 1983, where Julie is played by Happy Death Day's Jessica Rothe. I don't know what's harder to swallow – that the 43-year-old Silverstone was a teenager in 1983 or that Rothe grows up to be her, since the actresses look nothing alike. Judy Greer plays Julie's mom in the '80s segments, and casting her as the adult Julie would have made way more sense.
I digress. Adolescent Julie is from the San Fernando Valley, where she hangs around shopping malls and the beach with her best friends (Chloe Bennet, Ashleigh Murray, and Jessie Ennis). She's got a narcissistic boyfriend named Mickey (controversial YouTube star Logan Paul) from whom she wants to escape. The opportunity presents itself when she meets Randy (Josh Whitehouse), a punk rocker from Hollywood. They begin dating, but his friends don't approve of her, and her friends and family don't approve of him. The question becomes, can their love survive their different backgrounds?
The story progresses with beautifully choreographed, high-energy dance numbers in which the characters break into various beloved '80s hits tangentially related to whatever is occurring in the plot at any given moment. Because Julie's boyfriend is named Mickey, we of course hear Toni Basil's song of the same name. That example is a little forced. Generally, the songs are well-chosen, and there is a very cool mashup of Depeche Mode's “Just Can't Get Enough” and Soft Cell's “Tainted Love.” The musical scenes are by far the highlight of the movie.
What's interesting about the original Valley Girl is that it had its finger on the pulse of early '80s society. The Julie/Randy relationship felt suitably edgy, and the portrait of both mainstream and underground cultures was authentic. Coolidge had a fundamental understanding that her story took place in a unique time. That doesn't really apply here. The 2020 Valley Girl is so busy shoving '80s references at the audience that characterization and thematic development are squandered during the first two acts. (The third picks up a bit on that count.) The message consequently doesn't ring as meaningfully.
Genuine '80s kids will notice that the film's presentation of that era isn't very true; it's an exaggerated version that often feels like an affectation. Literally everything is presented as iconic. The story takes place inside a neon-colored dream world full of popped collars, Jane Fonda workout clothes, and poofy hair. I am reminded of Grease, a film I loved in early adolescence because the heightened depiction of the 1950s – all leather jackets, hoop skirts, and cool cars – was intoxicating. Valley Girl does something similar. Younger viewers may get screen-drunk on that. For adults, the fabrication is likely to come off as mildly distracting.
We also get the requisite cameos from some of the original cast members (Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily) and in-jokes. Adult Julie, for instance, describes Hollywood as feeling “a million miles away” from the Valley, a reference to the Plimsouls song popularized by the '83 version. Presumably these callbacks are there for fans of the original – and they are fun, in that sense. Since people old enough to remember Coolidge's version aren't the target audience, however, the inclusion of such references is puzzling.
Very much on the plus side, Rothe is a great choice for Julie. She brings a lot of charisma to the role with her sunny personality and way of bringing out the character's vulnerability. (Whitehouse is okay, although he's no Nicolas Cage. In fairness, that isn't his fault.) Bennet and Ennis provide particularly good supporting work, as does Mae Whitman as Randy's sarcastic bandmate. All the actors sing and dance nicely, and their commitment to director Rachel Lee Goldenberg's over-the-top tone is impressive.
Valley Girl is a mixed bag. An abundance of cheerful goofiness absolutely provides entertainment value. The 1983 version had something to say, though. This one is way more about the surface stuff than the substance, making it a better bet for viewers with no prior knowledge of the earlier film. Anyone who does know that picture will be happier just watching it again.
out of four
Valley Girl is rated PG-13 for teen partying, language, some suggestive material, and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.