Suppose an unknown hacker were to target a sleepy suburb, gathering everything meant to be kept private and unleashing it for public consumption. Presented with these texts, photos, emails, search history—basically an excavated mine of lies and hypocrisies—how would the town react? Welcome to the dystopian world of Assassination Nation, which follows four Salem, Massachusetts high school women navigating the post-Pandora’s box mayhem.
Much of the film, which is written and directed by Sam Levinson, operates on a mordantly satirical level. An opening sequence mocks prudes and pussyfooters with a series of abrasive “trigger warnings:” sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, violence, gore, weapons. In other moments, the frame is crammed with split-screen Snapchat videos, Reddit chains, and text exchanges, gesturing toward a splintered contemporary youth culture and the performative nature of social media. Of the movie’s myriad ideas and messages, few are conveyed with straightforward sincerity.
But the film does have one utterly earnest dimension: the bond between the film’s four lead women who, amid the chaos, manage to construct one of the truest depictions of female teen friendship I’ve seen on screen. Our narrator lies in Lily (Odessa Young), a brazen 18-year-old clad in booty shorts and Fatal Attraction socks often found sexting a mysterious contact named “Daddy.” Her best friend is Bex (Hari Nef), a coolheaded teen who comes face to face with her hometown’s veiled transphobia after she hooks up with the school football star. Rounding out the posse are Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), hip sisters whose ultra-modern, glass-paned house provides the group’s main hangout.
Despite the familiar foursome setup, this isn’t your generic teen movie crew. These are savvy, quirky, realistically multidimensional women, who spend as much time joking about parties and boys as they do challenging one other about political affairs and power dynamics.
“God, I love this song,” Bex exclaims at one point while walking with the posse, despite the fact that nothing’s playing. “What song?” Lily asks. Bex snaps her fingers—a magic cue—and Tommy Genesis’s “100 Bad” booms into play. The girls strut on in tandem, their platform lace-ups keeping time with a beat that only they can hear. This ability to write their own story, to detach from reality and enter a plane of their own, is a skill that will come in handy later on when everything they know goes off the rails and all they can rely on is each other.
“It’s easy to get lost in the heavy themes, but I think this film feels like a party from beginning to end. A really fun party that turns into a party gone very wrong,” Nef says, sitting down with Young in Manhattan to discuss the film several days before its release. “This little world that these four girls share—it’s a refuge for them. They make their own reality together and they have control over the reality.”
The surreal nature and structure of the film (it’s been described as Heathers meets The Purge) can be read as a kind of riff on the bizarre nature of social media. The four women, along with nearly all high schoolers today, were raised in a world where the internet was ubiquitous and its more toxic effects inescapable. As Lily laments in voiceover at one point during the film: “The truth is, no one wants the real you.”
Reflecting on the peculiar intersection of truth and the web, Young says, “In a Brechtian way of thinking, there is no way to accurately portray real life in a frame.”
“That was more Sontagian than Brechtian,” muses Nef in response, who, along with Young, seem to radiate beams of intellect and quick wit. Of her own public Instagram and Twitter accounts, Nef adds, “That’s my best foot I’m putting forward. But it’s just one foot. I have two feet. In fact, maybe I have eight feet. And I’m only putting my best one forward.”
Pointing fingers at people for behavior deemed duplicitous or immoral (online or off) is an issue that particularly plagues American culture, and Levinson emphasizes the movie’s Americana specificity with recurrent flags and other nationalistic visual cues. Though the premise of the film was developed before Trump’s election, the movie’s themes ring especially true in an age where the president leans on Twitter as a tool to both self-express and foment enmity and collective distrust. “Righteousness is the villain of this film,” Nef says. “And righteous is as American as apple pie.”
This diagnosis feels especially apt in the wake of Assassination Nation’s divisive reception. Of course, audiences feeling ambivalent about the movie’s flashy, offensive, and controversial elements isn’t surprising; it’s a reaction that Levinson was surely gunning for. But there seems to be a particular distaste reserved for flashy, offensive, and controversial elements in a movie centered on teen women. Even the movie’s ad campaign has run into obstacles: This week, the film’s distributor Neon reported that Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram all rejected posting a cut of the film’s trailer.
Ironically, this disconnect over what constitutes graphic material is a central theme in the film itself: In one scene, the school principal chastises Lily for submitting drawings of nude women masturbating as an art project. “All you’re looking at is the nudity, but this isn’t about that,” Lily tries to explain to him. “This is about everything that goes into it. The pressure. The endless mindfuck… Maybe it is explicit or extreme. But it sure as hell looks like life to me.”
To Young, it has seemed that many of the movie’s adult viewers “heavily rely on the fantasy element and tend to disbelieve what is actually going on, whereas the younger generation goes, ‘This is who I am. This is actually really real,’” she says. “We’re seeing a lot of responses like that based on the generational gap.”
The instinct to rail against the film is unfortunate, given how few films provide a voice to young women in the first place—let alone one that is intelligent, commanding, and ultimately resonant and wise. Squeamish naysayers aside, Assassination Nation provides a portrait of digital age America that is relevant, timely, and most importantly an opportunity to hear from a group of people rarely taken seriously, in movies or elsewhere: diverse teenage women.
“People have described this as a revenge film, but I think of it more as a survival film,” Nef says. “This fantasy of taking up arms against the people who come for you, it’s not necessarily something we advocate, but it’s cathartic and impactful to watch, because I think as women we’ve all felt at some point that we want to defend ourselves with as much force as we’re being persecuted or offended.”
Adds Young, “There is a banding together of these characters who have been disenfranchised for so long. These are not aggressive girls. They have found themselves in a world of violence, and in order to survive they must rise to the occasion.”