“Assassination Nation” starts with a trigger warning. Not a staid, blank-screened content advisory but a deluge of flash-forwards layered underneath Godard-inspired lettering, promising everything from your garden-variety bullying and gore to ”toxic masculinity, fragile male egos and the male gaze.” Those tongue-in-cheek details offer a knowing nod to the fact that the film, despite being centered on the trials of a quartet of adolescent renegades rocking baby pink, is helmed by Sam Levinson, a straight white dude with a preternatural ability to mimic teen-speak. “We call him Auntie Levinson,” star Suki Waterhouse said, laughing.
Set in a sprawling suburban wasteland cheekily called Salem ― what unfolds during the film’s swift 110 minutes forms a loose approximation of the infamous witch trials ― “Assassination Nation” is content to spend the first half of its runtime splayed out in backyard pools and high school gymnasiums with our girl gang of choice. There’s Lily (Odessa Young), an artsy dissident hiding an illicit sextathon with a mystery man; Bex (Hari Nef), a young woman whose über-cool facade guards a romantic bleeding heart; and Sarah (Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), ride-or-die adoptive sisters living with their single mother, Nance (Anika Noni Rose). As any self-respecting squad forged in the ’10s would, the four exchange snappy, dead-on dialogue about everything from nudes to ethics, all the while stylishly illuminated by the glow of their iPhones.
The girls’ spiky chatter is kitschy and fun, an updated “Jawbreaker” with the pleather pants and existential malaise to match. But when a townwide hack triggers WorldStar justice, Levinson ditches the sweat and vodka vapors of house parties for blood and a barrage of bullets, resulting in a screamingly violent and, at times, truly triggering movie that’s already got people talking.
“It’s this dance where we lure you in with the popcorn-crunching action,” gushed Nef, whose many improvised quotables — “I’m not a bitch, I’m a feminist” — make Bex the runaway MVP. “And then we pull you out of that and hopefully inspire you to think about it in a different way.”
For all its bikini-clad freneticism and barely legal grinding, “Assassination Nation” has a bounty of ideas, ones that have only had their teeth sharpened to zeitgeisty points since the script was written nearly two years ago. “We’re releasing this movie into a world that’s changed since we made it. It’s become more relevant,” said Young, the film’s magnetic star with self-assured swagger that anchors even the most message-y voiceover. “When we were at Sundance [in January], the Weinstein scandal had just broken, and so all of a sudden, we were having to look at the movie through this new filter. What does this mean in a day and age where women are speaking up in this industry about the treatment of them in the same way that these four teenage girls are speaking up about the treatment and the world that they were born into?”
To be clear, the timing for “Assassination Nation” might never have been more horribly perfect.
Nef revealed that she attended a callback for the film the day after Donald Trump was elected, as she and Levinson were reeling from the news. Luckily for her, “I had to cry in the scene, so as they say to do, I used it.” As it turns out, Levinson used the newly dawned Trump era in the film too. In one troubling scene, Salem’s sheriff drawls to an unruly mob of backwoods vigilantes that they’re “good people,” a phrase that seems to recall the president’s disturbing language after last year’s violence surrounding a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Sam said, ‘I’m so tired of watching movies about angry men,’” Nef recalled, indicating the grindhouse space “Assassination Nation” carves out for women’s rage — and the pain that comes along with it. “It really is just like, the world hates women, just say that and go,” lamented alt-R&B artist and self-proclaimed “Darkwave Duchess” Abra, who makes her film debut with the prodigious confidence of a natural performer. “Girls are so tired of suppressing [themselves]. I was always told, ‘Stop being so angry.’ Like, I’m passionate. I’m tired of being told to sit down, of subduing myself. It’s great to be able to be angry and shake shit up.”
If you’re suspicious of Levinson, a man who said he began writing the film as his wife was about to give birth to their first daughter, you wouldn’t be alone.
“It’s a healthy suspicion,” said Nef. “But it is a testament to Sam’s practice as a writer and his ability to look outside of himself, and he really did his research. He went online, and he went deep into Tumblr. When I first got the audition, there was a whole Tumblr attached to the pitch, where he had this whole mood board, tagged specific things for specific characters. He was on YouTube. He was listening to girls making videos, talking about their lives, listening to how they spoke and what they spoke about.”
While the stars of “Assassination Nation” were quick to credit Levinson with its prescient themes, it’s clear the actors all had a say in the construction of the script and story. “He knew his margins,” Abra said. “He knew when he could not research how it felt to be that. And he would ask us and defer to us, sit down with us and ask us how we felt.”
Nef, whose character endures the worst of the film’s phalanx of horrors, said she had specific input on the script as well. “There was an email I sent him, and then I found parts of the email in the next draft of the script. And that openness and generosity, I think, is essential when you are making a film about teenage girls, and that openness and generosity is what I think and hope allows these representations to succeed.”
“Assassination Nation” also succeeds in re-creating another standby of teenage girlhood: peril at the hands of men. As the hacks get increasingly out of hand ― Young’s glowering narration tells us precisely 17,000 people’s texts and emails ultimately get leaked — Lily is quickly accused of being the perpetrator by a local small-time hacker looking to dodge culpability. Hungry for someone to blame, town residents decide to, in no uncertain terms, “kill this bitch,” feeling emboldened after details of Lily’s relationship with a married man surface online.
In one particularly harrowing scene, sneering locals chase Lily through a suburban neighborhood, shouting profanity and sexual threats. In another, Em and Sarah are shoved against police car windows as insults are flung at them like spittle. “Whenever you’re doing a movie and you’re being taken on such an emotional roller coaster,” Waterhouse said, “it definitely brings up things in your past and things you’re dealing with in your life at the time. ... It was a very intense period of my life.”
It’s not hard to sniff out the allegories “Assassination Nation” sets up amid the chaos. The collateral damage of people’s intimate information being unceremoniously dumped on the web is an unmistakable and scathing critique of cancel culture, spiked with the painful awareness of the impossibility of being a woman online. “We’re in this really strange time where there’s a lot of conversations going on and people are coming out and telling their stories, but I also think this is a moment in time when people have never been more afraid to tell people what they think, and it’s more of a scary time to say what you think or to be able to have conversations,” said Waterhouse, who previously starred in the gonzo post-apocalyptic fable “The Bad Batch.” “It’s a hard time to be a woman in that way too. We’ve still got these standards, these beauty ideals that are incredibly oppressive, and now you’ve got to be a girlboss and a feminist queen and be empowered and all these kind of things. ... There’s so many things being thrown on us.”
Though it may sound like a tech-centric cautionary tale, “Assassination Nation” is no “Black Mirror.” The film’s stars are acutely aware that the internet gets out of hand because of people, not because of the platform that amplifies them. Nef, who has nurtured her public-facing accounts into positive-vibe bonanzas (affectionate comments of “mom” and “legend” litter her every Instagram post), said she sees social media as an impartial “interface, for whatever the users are dealing with and whatever their intentions are.” Young concurred, saying, “When [social media] is used as the villain and the enemy, I think that’s an extremely unproductive way to think about it. When social media goes wrong, like it does in this movie, it is a product of the people who are using it.”
The dim view of the future in “Assassination Nation” (and Levinson’s seeming insistence that we’re one hack away from a complete and total meltdown) may be discouraging, but it might not be so misplaced. Maybe we’ve always been this close to the edge. “I think when people get so mad about something and get so eager to persecute someone for something, similar to what we had going on in the Salem witch trials ― this is at the very root of America ― it’s people seeing evil in themselves and projecting it on somebody else and persecuting somebody else to feel less bad about the ways they identify or mirror or even might identify and mirror the person that is potentially in the wrong,” Nef said. “This is what happens when the rules of a society are too strict for its constituents.”
“Perhaps we have lost touch with our empathy,” Young mused. But what does that mean for the film’s cathartic final act? It is, after all, a movie that returns the violence and misogyny of dim-witted suburbanites by placing firearms in the hands of our four protagonists. Turns out, it’s complicated.
Nef, remembering a gloriously rowdy screening of the movie at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival, noted one reaction from the crowd that she called a “teachable moment for the film.” In the penultimate scene, one of the four girls has a chance to finally exact revenge on someone who almost took her life in what can only be described as a near-lynching. “The audience started chanting, ‘Kill him, kill him, kill him,’” she recounted, eyes widening. “Just because somebody is wrong does not mean that they deserve, need to be hurt back, hurt in return, because then the cycle feeds back.” It’s a laudable sentiment ― one that’s sporadically hard to square with the spray of bullets that closes out the movie as the four girls take to the streets, prepared to fight for justice in a baptism by blood.
Before things got too dark, Nef cut in. “Can we not abandon the fun of this movie? This is a fun midnight movie for you and your friends and your large popcorn and your slushy. It is a social critique, but it’s all wound up in an action movie that’s fun. These themes don’t have to be communicated in washed-out colors for an Oscar-buzz movie. It doesn’t have to be this intense indie highbrow thing. You can talk about these things and still make things that are conventionally capital-E entertaining.”
It’s a welcome reminder of the bonkers contradiction that “Assassination Nation” is, unwilling to be just one thing and intent on being everything at once: a perceptive feminist revenge fantasy in exploitation film clothing; a commentary on the impossibility of being a woman, written and directed by a man; a movie that opens with a trigger warning and closes with a marching-band cover of Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop.” The terms of the film’s revenge might not seem the most constructive, but that just might be the point. As Lily says during her final call to arms, “This is your world. You built this. Don’t take your hate out on me. I just got here.”