He’s All That is more than a Gen Z makeover
The remake of a ‘90s classic is charming in its own right
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It’s the perfect time for a reboot – not only in He’s All That, but also this newsletter. My name’s Jared Richards, and I’m taking over Netflix Pause.
A little bit about me? I thought you’d never ask! I’m a cultural critic living on Gadigal Land who writes about TV, film, music, and anything gay for The Guardian, The Monthly, Junkee, and more.
As someone of ‘bleached their hair and online-shopped a lot during 2020’ experience, I am endlessly fascinated by what a new look can do to a person. Enter He’s All That, the much-anticipated and gender-swapped remake of 1999 classic She’s All That, both of which are streaming on Netflix. Did someone say double feature?
He’s All That
For those of you whose sexual awakening didn’t revolve around Freddie Prinze Jr. and therefore need an introduction to She’s All That, please know that it’s arguably one of the most beloved ‘90s teen rom-coms.
Inspired by My Fair Lady — a take on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion — She’s All That saw cool dude teen Zack (Prinze) make a bet with a friend (Paul Walker) that he could take any nerdy girl at the school and transform her into Prom Queen. But things get complicated when he genuinely falls for pet-project Laney (Rachel Leigh Cook). It’s the perfect blend of romance, ridiculous plot, and inarguably iconic soundtrack.
He’s All That gives the classic a 2021 glow-up, with a savvy plot twist and a “Kiss Me” EDM remix that I demand to hear at every house party I go to from now on. In this gender-swapped version, our Zack character is Padgett, a TikTok star known for her beauty tips and makeovers played by real-life TikTok dancer Addison Rae, in her first leading role. As @PadgettHeadToToe, she shares a manicured version of her life with her 800,000+ followers. The first shots of the film pan over her bedroom before she wakes, a wash of millennial pink furniture, flowers, and fuzzy rugs.
It’s practically made for the Tumblr Teenage Bedrooms On Screen: a dream oasis, though the many ring lights reveal this is a workplace first, home second. Recalling Clueless’ opening montage, we see Padgett apply makeup in her pastel pink-tiled bathroom, then return to bed, turning on a ring light and reaching for her phone to live-stream, yawning and stretching as if she’s just woken up.
She offers beauty tips and accepts compliments about how gorgeous she looks “makeup-free”, before logging off and leaving her room to enter reality: a cramped hallway-kitchen.
Padgett and her mum (Rachel Leigh Cook!) struggle with bills and live in an ordinary, perfectly nice home that she hides from everyone. Her friends pick her up from outside a luxurious, expensive condo building, but her perfect world crumbles when she catches her boyfriend cheating. While lamenting she built him up from the ground up, her friend wagers she can’t do the same again. To quote Troy Bolton: they bet on it.
The project is Cameron, an anti-social and anti-social media photographer whose beanie, emo-era fringe, and bad clothes hide ridiculous abs and a charming personality. (He’s played by Tanner Buchanan, who Cobra Kai fans know as Robby.) The unlikely couple’s romantic dates involve horse riding, makeover montages, and karaoke to a Katy Perry classic: it’s a teenage dream manufactured by Padgett, before things, of course, get complicated.
There are plenty of cameos and nods to the original for fans of She’s All That, but He’s All That is full of surprises and welcome additions too, including an incredibly sweet queer B-plot and a very fun cameo by Addison’s real life BFFL Kourtney Kardashian, who plays Padgett’s sponsorships girlboss. But most of all, the gender-flip also fixes the gross implications of Pygmalion plots, where a woman’s self-worth is shifted by a man’s attraction to her.
Padgett still views the bet as a way to help Cameron: it’s an extension of her promise on TikTok to help her audience ‘become their most spectacular self’. But while the makeover reveals the hidden hunk, Cameron is lucky enough that, as a man, it doesn’t really change his circumstances. Sure, he gains new attention from girls and slowly becomes more sociable, but for better or worse, appearance isn’t as important to how his life looks as it is for Padgett. As she tells her followers: “When it comes to makeovers, it’s the insides that count. But your outsides are the first thing people see”.
Pardon the pretension, but He’s All That isn’t that far away from Bo Burnham’s Inside (and his film Eighth Grade) or Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ episode, where characters are driven to the edge by a compulsion to be loved online.
In ‘Nosedive’, each human is sorted into a caste system by social media likes, meaning Bryce Dallas Howard’s character has to perform being relatable to advance in life. As a comedian, this is Bo Burnham’s job on-stage and online alike. In Inside, we see Burnham break his mind to do so. Padgett’s life as an influencer is also one of desperation – a constant pressure to seem relatable enough to gain enough followers to make enough money to afford college. The hustle is relentless!
Okay, ‘relentless’ is a strong word. Padgett's not quite Caroline Calloway, and there’s no ‘Nosedive’ breakdown here. But He’s All That plays with the toll of performing as yourself, and questions whether influencers are ever really themselves. It’s a smart first acting role for Rae, who is expanding her brand beyond TikTok dances, though, don’t worry, there’s some fancy footwork in He’s All That.
Watch these too:
The Duff, another Pygmalion plot featuring Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman, where her character helps a footballer with homework in exchange for his help with transforming her reputation after learning she’s the DUFF -- aka, the ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’. Way harsh.
Just The Way You Are, a Filipino rom-com. It’s one of a series of Filipino films adapted from a Wattpad story. If you know, you know, and if you don’t, that’s a guarantee of melodrama, camp, and scandal.
Alice Wu’s The Half Of It (2020), an incredibly tender queer coming-of-age story about Chinese-American teen Ellie, who helps jock Paul write love letters to his crush and falls for her in the process. I don’t know a cuter film.
The internet can’t stop talking about:
Sweet Girl’s plot twist. I’m not going to spoil it, but M. Night Shyamalan could never!
This TIME feature on Sweet Girl and a recent trend of action films revolving around father-daughter relationships, where a dad’s need to ‘protect’ their daughter causes more problems than it fixes. No spoilers here, either!
The Chair, which sees Sandra Oh play the head of a flailing English department fighting off budget cuts and scandals. The Atlantic sums it up perfectly: “[The Chair is] a unicorn: a near-perfect television show that clocks in at just three hours, and a comedy-drama that skewers the subject of free speech in academia without taking a side, demonizing a particular group, or descending into tweed-clutching.”
Clickbait, a new Australian-American produced thriller series about a kidnapped man who appears in a video promising he’ll die once it hits five million views. Turns out my mum was right: being extremely online is dangerous. Watch the trailer here.