Unpacking He’s All That’s teenage influencer dream
Brodie Lancaster on the rom-com subversions of the She’s All That remake
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I’m Jared Richards, editor of Netflix Pause and makeover guru. Today, I’m talking to writer, author, and teen rom-com expert Brodie Lancaster about He’s All That’s karaoke scene (essentially the remake’s updated hacky sack moment in She’s All That, which is also streaming on Netflix), and how it reveals that the age-old teenage pressure to constantly perform and prove yourself to your peers has only gotten more intense.
In the scene, TikTok influencer Padgett (Addison Rae) freezes while singing Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’: a nightmare for anyone, but especially when your public image and career depend on always being perfect. Thankfully, she’s rescued by horse enthusiast and the subject of her secret makeover bet, Cameron (Tanner Buchanan), who sheds his shy exterior and jumps on-stage for a duet.
Brodie, as someone who knows both '90s teen rom coms and the influencer world better than anyone else I know, you must have a lot of feelings about He's All That.
You bet I do! I was nine years old when the original came out and it holds such a special place in my heart/pop culture inventory. Paul Walker’s delivery of the line, “Check out the bo-bos on super-freak” when he sees Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) in her swimsuit is ingrained in my memory. The obsession with the romantic comedy genre runs so deep I’ve even been a talking head in a documentary about them.
I’m also deeply committed to keeping up with celebrities, particularly of the reality TV variety, and have been known to derail chill nights with friends by forcing everyone to familiarise themselves with TikTok stars or react to the video of Addison Rae performing viral dances with Jimmy Fallon. So, all these things coming together is deeply up my alley.
There are such fun links between Padgett's story and Addison's own. Addison launched Item Beauty, which you just know Padgett would be into; she's also on Kourtney's speed dial IRL, which led to the most unsettling episode of KUWTK ever (that's saying a lot); and of course, there's the TikTok of it all. Addison became famous for dancing and sweetly mugging to the camera on the app, and has turned that viral fame into a singing career, releasing her tightly choreographed first music video, ‘Obsessed’, in March.
Considering how pervasive they were in the original and Addison’s pedigree, I was wondering how long it would take us to get to a dance sequence in He’s All That, and luckily I didn't have to wait long. Before recreating the She’s All That dance battle at the prom, He's All That has its own classic "fish out of water" moment, where Cameron is thrust into Padgett's world. And her world is a karaoke pool party.
What better place for the school’s influencer celebrity and the subject of her bet to make their public debut together than on-stage, mic in hand?
After initially grinning through her performance Padgett really fumbles when her ex appears. It was a very ‘Lorelai in the final episodes of Gilmore Girls’ moment. Then Cameron rides in on his white horse (metaphorically, for now), grabs a microphone, and joins her. He not only shows that he's willing to drop the anti-social beanie-wearing act for her, but also that it’s been an act all along – he knows all the words of a Katy Perry song!
In the original, Zack’s (Freddie Prinze Jr.) famous hacky sack two-step happens because he needs to prove to Laney he’s game, and not just making fun of her. Cameron, on the other hand, is way less suspicious of Padgett's intentions: all it took was a stumble and a little horse shit (literally) for him to decide she was genuinely pursuing him.
Padgett loses her words when she spots her pop-star ex Jordan in the crowd, understandably. Did it strike you as weird that he’s the one who cheats on her but Padgett is the one who loses followers?
At first, I thought being cheated on by her boyfriend on a live stream would make Padgett's followers more sympathetic to her, not less, but I suppose when she’d tied everything to a very aspirational image, seeing the sadder reality made people turn on her. And that exodus has real stakes: losing her followers and influence means she can’t do #sponcon with Kourtney Kardashian’s character’s beauty brand to pay for college!
In She’s All That, all Zack makes a bet with his toxic friend to prove he was still the Big Man On Campus (a phrase this film taught nine-year-old me) after he was cheated on. Padgett does it because her influencer status is the difference between a viable future and one that doesn’t involve going to university.
Here’s where the differences between the original and the remake are most stark. The teens in the late ‘90s were freer, with little more than just the eyes of their classmates on them, whereas Padgett and her friends are aware that everything they say and do can be immortalised on camera and affect their future prospects. It’s a lot of responsibility for them to contend with so young.
By jumping on-stage Cameron didn’t just save Padgett’s dance, he saved her business. It’s also basically his first ‘move’, too: in your expert opinion, where does it sit among the many grand rom-com gestures before it?
The big teen movie grand gesture is usually just about a declaration of love. It's the Say Anything ‘boombox in the air’ model, perfected by not-a-teen Josie on the baseball pitch in Never Been Kissed, reimagined by Heath Ledger with both the marching band, and the Letters to Cleo song dedication in 10 Things I Hate About You, and more recently in Beanie Feldstein's graduation day burnout in Booksmart.
But when Cameron drops the loner artifice and steps into the very well-worn Sketchers (do teens still wear those?) of teen movie hero/ines offering up grand, public gestures to win someone back, he’s going one step above what his predecessors did. Not content to just show Padgett he supports her, he’s also (unknowingly) helping to repair her social media reputation.
And as the David Dobriks and Liza Koshys of the world can attest, publicly declaring (or even soft-launching) your relationship on social media can really reignite public interest in influencers and social media stars. Kourtney Kardashian is recent proof of it!
Despite starring TikTok’s biggest success story, He’s All That is fairly critical of influencers - the dance scene in question shows that even fun is a performance for Padgett. Even though she’s the ‘Zack’ character, is she the one who really needs the makeover?
Okay Dr. Melfi, you're really onto something here! Isn't it always the way that the popular character – the one who cares what everyone else thinks – is suffocated by the pressure to keep up appearances, and has the most to learn from someone who doesn't succumb to the same expectations and, eventually, changes even more than their scruffier love interest? You could apply that character outline to countless teen films from any era.
Padgett is hiding so much: her real home, her fear of missing out on college through no fault of her own, the real person behind the perfect public image. But Cameron's presence in her life makes them all spill out! Her walls come down when they sit in the train station – incidentally, the same setting as my other favourite late-'90s "popular girl and unpopular guy romance" denouement from Can’t Hardly Wait. It's what makes him want to take her portrait on his camera – something #real and candid, when she's used to just seeing herself posed in front of her phone.
In the original, Zack's cheating girlfriend Taylor Vaughan (the strongest name for an on-screen bitch you've ever heard) dumped him for Brock Hudson– an early MTV reality star who hogged the spotlight in every room, and tattooed a drawing of his own face on his bicep to remember their passionate fling. Taylor was vicious to everyone, including Lacey, but Padgett’s ex Jordan doesn't have quite the same bite, even during his martial arts showdown with Cameron. And Jordan’s new fling, Aniston, doesn't obsessively require attention the same way Brock – in Matthew Lillard's inspired performance – did.
With the gender-flipping not exactly aligning let me posit a theory: is Padgett less a female Zack, and more this generation's Brock? She's actively seeking out fame and performing a role to get it. She's controlling her own reality TV show and playing the ‘sweet older sister’ role – the one that would've kept the Real World house in order when Brock was farting up a storm.
Seeing Padgett hustle to sell body lotion and under-eye patches to her viewers is nightmarish in its accuracy, but also calls back to what Addison herself did in the early months of TikTok fame. I remember watching her dance with her little brothers and parents (before they all moved out to LA to realise her dreams) next to a packet of paper towels, while wearing sweatpants with fast food logos on them. She hustled with every hip roll to be able to play this version of herself who wants to go to college – maybe to study broadcast journalism.
All that's to say: aren't we all just performing versions of ourselves, really? Deep, I know!!!!!!!!!
I believe it was Shakespeare who wrote, "all the world's a stage for #spon". Since we're all performers, let's imagine a scene: you get a call from Padgett’s agent Jessica Miles Torres. Are you picking up?
Are you kidding?! Of course I am! Kourtney Kardashian's short cameo has such a threatening aura; who knows what she'd do if you didn't answer her call. Do we really think her ex-husband was mauled by bears while hiking? Also, I want the Goop-esque swag she inevitably gives to her most influential influencers.
Before dating Travis Barker made her earnest and human, Kourtney was always the dry, distant sister. So, seeing her use that same blank face and judgey voice to tell Rae’s character that "mucus is just not on-brand for us" after her snot bubbles inspire their own hashtag is deranged, camp, and everything I’ve ever dreamt of.
Brodie Lancaster is a writer and critic, and the author of ‘No Way! Okay, Fine’. She lives in Melbourne.