It would be too easy to call Fun the best movie about murderous teenage girls since Heavenly Creatures — and also inaccurate. Given a brief art-house run in early 1996 (after playing at Sundance), Fun was made in 1993 — around the same time that Peter Jackson was on the set with Kate Winslet, coaching her on how to bash a woman’s head in with a brick. In other words, fans of Jackson’s film owe it to themselves to see this raw, very American take on the same theme.
Fun stars Alicia Witt (later in Cecil B. DeMented and Vanilla Sky) as Bonnie, a hyperactive misfit with flyaway red hair that suggests electricity coming out of her brain, and Renée Humphrey (Mallrats) as Hillary, a brooding poet with a history of sexual abuse by her father. They meet by chance on the side of a highway and, over the course of a day, become instant soulmates. They shoplift, try on makeup, hit the arcade, go door-to-door harassing strangers, and, oh yes, they charm their way into an old woman’s house and stab her to death “for fun.”
The movie alternates between present-day footage of both girls in juvenile detention (shot in gritty hand-held b&w) and flashbacks of the long and fateful day (shot in lush, golden color). In juvie, a frazzled counselor (Leslie Hope) — herself a former delinquent who turned herself around — tries to reach the girls, while a slick magazine writer (William R. Moses) interviews them for a hard-hitting article he plans to publish. Of the two adults — the woman who’s been there and the guy who’s exploiting them — the girls trust the reporter more, one of the movie’s sly twists. The counselor has too much contempt for the girls (and for the flashes of her former self she sees in them) to reach them, while the reporter offers to pull strings so the girls can see each other again.
The actresses shared a Sundance Jury Recognition award, well-deserved. Witt’s nonstop chatter and spastic movements take some getting used to — my heart sank at first: “Oh, no, it’s a Shine performance.” But after a few scenes you realize that Bonnie is actually a bright, hyper-verbal girl whose intelligence has gotten mired in her emotional wreckage. As Witt shows us how lonely, deluded and needy Bonnie really is — she’s a liar-fantasist who craves attention — her performance becomes deeply moving. Unlike Geoffrey Rush’s Oscar-begging turn in Shine, there’s nothing remotely huggable or life-affirming in Witt’s portrait.
Humphrey has the straighter and, in some ways, harder role — she underplays and holds her own with the flamboyant Witt. She gives her most painful lines a casual verbal shrug — talking about her father’s rape of her as if it happened to someone else on TV — that breaks your heart a little, because that’s pretty much how numb girls like Hillary do talk. And she’s chilling when Hillary talks to the counselor about the murder: “My mom gets these letters saying I’m a monster, and I don’t know, maybe I am. ‘Cause, man, we were like werewolves.”
Fun was directed by Rafal Zielinski, a Canadian whose previous claim to fame was cheezoid teen sex comedies of the ’80s, like Screwballs, Loose Screws, and (in a daring departure from the screw motif) Valet Girls. It’s safe to say Fun represents a quantum leap in maturity and filmmaking for him, on a par with Carl Franklin’s leap from Full Fathom Five to One False Move. The transitions from past to present are deftly handled; the murder is one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen in a film, and I’ve seen it all. I was reminded of the home-invasion scenes in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog, and, yes, A Clockwork Orange. And as a comment on the cycle of abuse and the effect of pop culture on warped psyches, it kicks the shit out of Natural Born Killers.
The movie isn’t perfect; as I said, it’s raw. The back-and-forth of the dialogue is often too rapid to be realistic (as was also the case in Clerks) — maybe out of necessity, because Fun was shot in just eight days. And Zielinski tries one idea that doesn’t quite work: a speeded-up montage of the girls’ pre-murder activities. The sequence begins well, playing like an ’80s teen flick from the planet of dread, but it goes on too long. But these are minor flaws. I popped the video into the VCR at 11 pm, planning to watch a little before bed and catch the rest in the morning; it woke me up and kept me up, feeling as if I’d been drop-kicked in the stomach. Fun doesn’t deliver on its title. It delivers something else.