Every superhero needs a nemesis. Villains make our tough guys tougher, our heroes more heroic, our do-gooders gooder. They’re critical for plot, theme and costume design. Really, if the Joker hadn’t showed up in The Dark Knight, the whole three-hour movie would’ve been about Bruce Wayne choosing a new set of flatware. Gotham City? Try Snoresville.
Sometimes the concept of the nemesis trickles down into reality, too. Most of us can probably remember a nemesis in our own lives—someone who, for whatever reason, has written “cause misery” next to your name on their bucket list. Their sole purpose in life seems to be to torment and belittle you, making you feel like a hair in the armpit of humanity.
In high school, J.J. filled the role of Marni’s nemesis to near perfection: She was Khan to Marni’s Kirk, Nell to Marni’s Laura Ingalls. She was a popular, pretty and insanely wicked girl who gleefully smashed jars of Marni’s self-esteem on the pavement, then jumped up and down on the contents.
Who you are in high school determines who you’ll be for the rest of your life, Marni tells a video camera—the recording to be buried in a time capsule for 50 years. Then she adds, “I seriously hope it’s not the case.”
Thankfully for Marni, it’s not. Eight years later, the girl has become a beautiful, successful woman—a soon-to-be VP in a New York City public relations firm. Once free of her nemesis, Marni soars. She heads back for her older brother’s wedding full of confidence and—
Wait, who did you say he was marrying?
Yes, Marni’s brother, Will, is marrying J.J., who now goes by the name Joanna. And we also find out that Joanna’s Aunt Mona and Marni’s mother, Gail, went to the same high school—where their BFF status was quite rudely interrupted. An improbable, even outlandish, setup? Sure. But it sets the table for a really endearing feast. These characters may serve as one another’s nemeses and perpetrate a lot of laughably bad behavior, but there’s not a real villain in the bunch.
Joanna was, admittedly, a pill in high school. But after her parents died, she decided to remake herself into someone they could be proud of. She went to nursing school, volunteered for a suicide hotline and became, in her words, “obsessed with helping children in need.” Though Marni suspects Joanna of putting up a sham to snag her brother, it’s no act. She’s changed since high school—perhaps more than Marni.
Joanna’s wealthy, pretentious and condescending Aunt Mona, meanwhile, is still battling adolescent insecurities. After coming in second to Gail in high school—at prom, in the school play, you name it—Mona threw everything she had into turning herself into a powerful hotel magnate. Now she thinks she wants to rub Gail’s face in her success, but in reality, all Mona really wants is a hug and some reconciliation.
And that’s what this movie is all about in the end: reconciling with the past and making peace with the people who have (or you think have) done you wrong. The core lesson is that we can change for the better if we allow ourselves to.
“Everybody deserves a second chance,” Gail tells Marni.
“We are our experiences,” Marni’s Grandma Bunny also tells her. “That terrible time made you who you are today.”
“You’re human, Joanna,” Aunt Mona says. “Making mistakes is part of what we do. It’s how we go about fixing them that matters.”
All of this moralizing could’ve made the film feel a bit heavy-handed—and perhaps, in other hands, it might’ve. But here, in Disney’s goofy, gracious style, the lesson is fed to us with a spoonful of sugar. The film’s humorously harrowing portrayal of bullying may even offer a glimmer of hope to those who are bully victims.
We also hear lots of positive familial talk. Gail says her family is her source of happiness. Will tells Marni that he wishes “you could see how incredible you are” when she’s just an awkward high schooler. And parents are largely shown to be conscientious, caring and (sometimes) responsible role models.
A wedding is led by a Christian pastor. Joanna, while in high school, tells a videographer that the meek “shall not inherit the earth.” Marni refers to Joanna as “Satan’s spawn.”
Women dance a little provocatively during a dance lesson. Cheerleading outfits reveal bare midriffs. Dresses are sometimes tight-fitting and/or low-cut.
Marni, after falling asleep overnight in the family tree house, wakes up to find a gaggle of tween boys staring at her. “I thought you said your sister was hot,” one tells Ben. Marni suggests that Joanna, when she was in high school, dated another high school’s principal. Joanna’s former fiancé says that she used to make a certain noise when they’d “snuggle.” Couples kiss.
When a former fiancé of Joanna’s asks for her number, Grandma Bunny thinks he’s asking for her own—and gives it to him. “I’m also on Facebook and the Twitter,” she adds. She tells Marni that if she doesn’t go after an eligible hunk, she will. And when she asks Marni to help her with her dentures, Grandma says, “We need a tight seal. I’m going to be kissing later.”
When Marni sits down at a banquet table, the man beside her begins removing the glasses and silverware from the immediate vicinity to provide what he calls a “safe zone.” And well he should, because You Again is filled with slapstick shenanigans. Characters knock heads, throw plates, fall down rope ladders, dump vats of punch, fall into huge ant hills, get pushed into pools, step on toes and knock down unprepared dance partners. Two folks break bones after the tree house in which they’re standing falls out of the tree.
On the official You Again website, the movie’s tagline reads, “High school’s a b‑‑ch, and now she’s back.” But in the movie itself, the closest we get to profanity is two uses of “gosh” and one of “jeez.”
Marni’s date hands her an “umbrella drink” while holding another mixed drink.
The following bad behavior is somewhat mitigated by the fact that most of it is punished in some way: Joanna pretends she doesn’t remember Marni from high school and keeps secrets from her husband-to-be. Marni is petty and petulant and, in a misguided effort to save her brother from a woman she thinks is evil incarnate, unearths the time capsule tape and shows it during the wedding’s rehearsal dinner. Gail gets goaded into drag racing with Mona on a downtown boulevard.
A few lies go unchecked. Ben blames the tree house’s collapse on termites, but he actually loosened its bolts. Mona gives Ben a video game, which (it’s suggested) he spends all night playing. Marni bribes Ben to participate in what Ben refers to as her “evil plan.”
Mona’s been divorced a couple of times, and she’s in the middle of a 14-month-long litigation process to terminate her latest marriage (which only lasted seven). A mild joke is made about the suicide hotline Joanna volunteered at.
“You can’t control the things that happen to you,” Marni tells us as the film begins, “but you can control how you react to them.”
Marni has to relearn her own lesson during the course of You Again. The good news: she does. The better news: We might learn a thing or two from this bit of cinema as well—and laugh as we do so.
You Again is not groundbreaking art, perhaps. But it is surprisingly funny and startlingly sweet. And I say that as a movie lover, a movie critic and a curse-counting curmudgeon. If this film had been made when I was a kid 30 or 35 years ago, it would have probably earned a G rating—right alongside the likes of Freaky Friday and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.