Subverting religious tropes with the power of friendship
“She’s actually evil. Not high school evil.”
Anyone who’s ever seen a teen movie, let alone lived through the horrors of high school, understands the distinction Needy Lesnicky makes in Jennifer’s Body. When her best friend is turned into bloodthirsty succubus, “evil” takes on a whole new meaning.
A similar transformation takes place in Damon Thomas’ comedy horror adaptation of Grady Hendrix’s novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism–which feels heavily inspired by Karen Kusama’s cult horror classic. Except, more emphasis on the “high school evil.” Because when Abby Rivers’ (Elsie Fisher) best friend Gretchen Lang (Amiah Miller) is possessed by a demon, it’s boyfriend-stealing, body-shaming, and publicly humiliating others from Gretchen thereafter. Like Jennifer’s Body, My Best Friend’s Exorcism’s unique brand of horror comedy is inseparable from its high school landscape–although, it doesn’t pack quite the same scathing punch.
In Thomas’ film, Abby navigates the challenges of being a teenager, from acne to inappropriate crushes and strict Catholic school teachers. Gretchen’s possession doesn’t upend this normal teen life; it shines a glaring spotlight on it. The change in Gretchen manifests in more than just nightmares and pallid skin. Abby’s best friend becomes the classic “mean girl bitch” almost overnight–and thus the perfect character to highlight the everyday horrors of 80s high school life, diet shakes and all.
It’s a fun subversion of the teen horror genre, although I wouldn’t exactly call it clever, or even spooky for that matter. The same can be said for how the film supplants the religious tropes of exorcism movies with the power of friendship. (This is meant to be cheesy, though it doesn’t lean far enough into its campiness for my liking.)
Arguably the most entertaining part of My Best Friend’s Exorcism is Christian Lemon, an 80s Christian exercising (and exorcizing) guru. But the sweatband-wearing “Jesus freak” exists primarily as an object of ridicule, and paves the way for a true hero: Abby, who knows nothing about exorcisms (“I’m Jewish,” she exasperatedly proclaims to Christian when he wants to know whether she’s baptized). But she does know about her love for Gretchen.
Most exorcism films have strong religious undertones, of which My Best Friend’s Exorcism is highly aware and attempts to challenge–doing so amusingly, even if it doesn’t really take its criticism anywhere. It does instead refocus on other themes. Rather than the “Christ conquers all” mantra (which Hendrix recognized in his novel as a not-so-universal message), the film advocates for friendship conquering all kinds of teen struggles and insecurities. The path, then, that My Best Friend’s Exorcism takes to promoting female friendship over all the high school horrors that might get in one’s way is a sweet one, though the message is beaten over one’s head.
Ultimately, the film isn’t funny enough to be a strong comedy. It isn’t scary enough to be a strong horror film. Nor is it campy enough to be able to wave away both of these and still claim the cult following of Jennifer’s Body.
In My Best Friend’s Exorcism–as Needy Lesnicky in Jennifer’s Body would say–“Hell is a teenage girl.” But hell is also being without her. It’s a sweet and subversive premise, but My Best Friend’s Exorcism doesn’t lean into its message in any meaningful way to make it more than what it is: saccharine pseudo-horror.