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Episode 16: Jennifer’s body

by | Sep 23, 2020

This week we look at Jennifer’s Body, the 2009 teen horror comedy. And alas, this will be our last time together for a while: life has gotten way too busy for me lately, and something had to give. I hope you got something out of our time together: I know I have.

Here’s the links for this episode:

And here’s the script of the episode.

Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every episode we do a deep dive into a movie or TV show.  And to go along with this analysis, I publish a chart of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a chart I produced while preparing the episode.  You don’t need to look at that chart – the podcast is standalone.  But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.

This week we’re doing 2009’s JENNIFER’S BODY, a horror movie written by Diablo Cody, directed by Karyn Kusama, and starring Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried.  And a little to my surprise, because it’s not why I picked it to do, this is a movie that seems to be getting a lot of buzz right now.  But we’ll talk about that in a moment.

But first, my usual warning.  This podcast assumes you’ve seen the movie.  There will be spoilers.  And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points.  So if you listen to this without knowing the movie, you’re out of luck: the movie will be spoiled for you, and you may not understand what I’m talking about.  It’s basically the worst of all worlds.  So see the movie – it’s an interesting one in some interesting ways.

JENNIFER’S BODY is the story of Anita Lesnecki, nicknamed Needy by almost everyone, and her best friend Jennifer Check.  These two have been friends forever, or, as the script notes: “But we’d been the Wonder Twins since we were practically preverbal. Sandbox love never dies.”

After a local bar burns down during a performance by an indie rock band, Jennifer starts to eat her fellow high school boys.  Needy figures out that Jennifer has been possessed by a demon after the band sacrificed her to Satan to make themselves successful.  Hijinks ensue, Jennifer kills Needy’s boyfriend, Needy kills Jennifer, and Needy ends up in a hospital for the insane.  She uses demonic powers stolen away from Jennifer to escape from the hospital, and in a series of pictures shown during the credits, she uses those powers to kill the band that sacrificed Jennifer.

Pretty straight-forward horror with some comic elements largely provided by the clever dialogue provided by Diablo Cody.

Now a funny thing happened on the way to this episode.  I had come across this movie after someone suggested it as a comp for a script that I’m writing.  And honestly, I wasn’t impressed by it.

But just as I was getting ready to write this up, the New York Times published an article titled “What Megan Fox Taught Me about the Power of Subversive Girls,” written by Lena Wilson.  This article wrote about the strong impact this film had on the author, and following some links in it led me to discover that this film is being revisited in certain critical circles.  And this led me to some second thoughts about the film that I’ll discuss here.

So this movie clearly has a strong impact on some audiences.  And in particular, it can have a strong impact on some teenage girls.

Now as you might guess from the sound of my voice, I am not a teenage girl.  I have never been a teenage girl.  I never expect to become a teenage girl.  So perhaps it’s not too surprising that this film didn’t have the same impact on me as it has on teenage girls.

But I am not going to deny the power of representation, or finding a film that speaks to issues that one faces or has faced.  There are certainly movies that I love in part because I identify strongly with the protagonist.  Why, just last week I rewatched IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, a film that has that effect on me.

But ultimately, I’m not qualified to speak to those aspects of JENNIFER’S BODY.  And so I’m largely going to ignore them here.  But I have included links to some articles about it on the storylanes.com website, so if you want to read more about how the themes of JENNIFER’S BODY speak to young women and some of the issues that our culture is wrestling with, I recommend you read those linked articles.  Or do a Google search, which will lead you to many of the articles I read.

Where I feel I am qualified is when I speak about story structure.  So that will be the focus of this episode.  And frankly, the story structure of JENNIFER’S BODY is a bit of a mess.  So I’m going to be saying some negative things about this film.

But please bear in mind that I’m speaking primarily of the structure of this story, and where I speak of the themes it will mostly be facing the question of how the structure of the story serves those themes.  Nothing of what I say here should indicate that you shouldn’t like this movie.  Only that I wish the structure had been more clean, so the movie’s themes could have come through with more power.

Phew, that was a long prologue.  Perhaps appropriate, because this movie also has a long prologue.  But in any event, let’s get on with our usual analysis.  And as usual, we’ll start with characters.

Our protagonist and point-of-view character is Needy Lesnecki.  We first meet her in a mental hospital.  She’s both violent and powerful.  We soon see her kick one of the staff across the room.  Not surprising, because as she tells us, “I’m a kicker. It even says so on my chart.”

So, she’s violent and considered insane.  But she wasn’t always like this.  Once upon a time, she was normal.  As she tells us, “It’s hard to believe that just two months ago, me, Jennifer and my boyfriend Chip were completely normal people. We were our yearbook pictures. Nothing more, nothing less.”

And Needy is normal.  A normal high school student, a bit on the geeky side but not too much.  Smart.  Well behaved.  With a nice boyfriend Chip.  And a best friend, Jennifer.

And that leads us to Jennifer.  At the starting point, she is also a normal high school girl.  But she’s nowhere near as nice as Needy.  She’s selfish and nasty.  And she’s also quite sexy.  So a bad girl cheerleader.

The friendship between these two is the key relationship in this movie.  They are best friends since forever.  But they are also total opposites: it’s not entirely clear why they are so close.  They just are and always have been.  Even though, as we find out, Jennifer has always been pretty nasty to Needy and has always forced her to play second.

So those are the two main characters, which gets us to the supporting characters.  Who are all, really, types.  None of them impresses as having a deep emotional life separate from the film.

There’s Chip Dove, Needy’s boyfriend.  A bad drummer but nice enough kid.  But a standard teenage boy, with all the limitations that implies.  Loves Needy, inexperienced with girls, a bit of a hanger-on.

There’s the family of these teens, none of whom really register.  Needy, Chip, and Jennifer all have moms, Chip has a little sister.  There’s no dad in sight.  None of these family members make an impact.

There’s Mr Wroblewski, a teacher.  Again, there’s nothing that much distinguishes him other than the fact that he’s got an artificial arm.

There’s Jonas the Jock and Colin the Goth.  Again, both pretty much refugees from central casting.

And there’s Nikolai and the other guys in Low Shoulder, an indie rock band.  Nikolai is clearly evil, two-dimensionally so.  Dirk, another guy in the band, is nicer, shows some sympathy and regret for what the band does to Jennifer.  But when offered a choice, he says:

DIRK I don’t know if we should go through with this. 

NIKOLAI (angrily) Do you want to be rich and famous like the guy from Maroon 5? Or do you want to be a huge suicidal loser? 

DIRK (sadly) Maroon 5. 

I guess what I’m saying is that other than Jennifer and Needy, none of these characters have any depth.  And even those two don’t have much.  This is not a movie with a rich set of supporting characters of immense depth.  They’re all largely superficial.  This is more about plot.

So let’s take a look at that plot.  Let’s do the story structure.

And note that in the Storylanes analysis at Storylanes.com, I’ve brought back the Deaders lane.  We’ve dropped it for a while as we dealt with low body-count films.  But JENNIFER’S BODY is not low body count, and it certainly calls out for a deaders lane.

I find this one to be a bit of a mess structurally.  Though admittedly the movie isn’t quite as much of a mess as the film, which has one major structural improvement that we’ll get to soon.

First off, there’s the wrapping story.  We start with Needy in a mental hospital.  And she’s nasty and she’s violent and completely checked out, except when she’s attacking somebody.  Which immediately raises the question: what happened to make this girl be this way?  And that launches us into the film.

So let’s call this a prolog.  And then we jump back in time.

Now here’s where the film improves on the script.  Because in the script, we jump back to the scene where Needy kills Jennifer.  We see that scene, then we jump back to before anything went wrong, back when Needy, Jennifer, and Chip are just normal high school students.  “We were our yearbook photos.”

But the film jumps right back to that first moment, the yearbook photo moment.

I think that was absolutely the right choice.  I’m okay with the in media res opening, though I know a lot of people aren’t. But two of them?  That seems a bit excessive.  

The point of an in media res opening is that it puts questions in an audience’s mind.  How did the character get here?  What led to this moment?

But if you have two in media res openings, that puts too many questions in the audience’s mind.  And the audience can quickly forget one of the questions.

So better to have just one of these moments, as the film does.  This was definitely an improvement over the script.

(Note: I’m ignoring here a brief moment in the film where we start by seeing stringed-out Jennifer with Needy coming to call.  It’s there, but it’s short.  And frankly, forgettable.  I think the movie would have done better by dropping it entirely.)

Anyway, now we’re into act one, the setup.  Typical act one.  Meet the characters.  Setup the basic problem.  Give the inciting incident.  Set the ball rolling.

In this case, the status quo is Needy and Jennifer, best friends, an almost romantic relationship that’s called by one character:

CHASTITY You’re totally lesbigay. 

NEEDY What? She’s my best friend. 

I can’t help but think that first character in onto something here.  These girls are awfully close – maybe a little too close to be just friends.

The inciting incident is Jennifer inviting Needy to come see the band Low Shoulder perform at a local bar.  That show kicks off the action.

The show itself is also in act one, another major sequence in the act.  The bar burns down, Jennifer and Needy escape, but Jennifer goes off in a van with Low Shoulder.  Clearly something is terribly wrong with them and with her going away.

Then one last sequence: Jennifer comes to Needy’s house, behaves incredibly strangely, vomits up horrible black bile.  Looks like she’s going to attack Needy, but instead leaves.

And the act ends, and we’re into act two.

Now I don’t think this is a film that breaks cleanly into three acts.  There’s a clear first setup act.  And there’s a clear final act of climax and resolution.  But between those there are what I think of as three middle acts. However, a three-act structure purist would probably say these are all part of act two.  Let’s go through those events and why I think they make up full acts.

The first of these starts with the next day in school.  All of the kids at school are understandably shocked by what happened at the club, a disaster that claimed the lives of many students and others in the community.

Everyone’s shocked but Jennifer.  She’s looking good, feeling fine.  Making fun of all the grief around her.

NEEDY A lot of people died, Jennifer. They burned to death, or they choked, or they just got trampled. More than half of the people there didn’t make it out. It’s like, all over the news. National news. Kids are dead. Parents are dead. 

JENNIFER Anyone we know? 

NEEDY We know everyone

JENNIFER Sucks to be them, I guess. 

Needy tells Chip about Jennifer’s weird late-night visit, but he downplays her concerns, suggests she’s imagining things.

CHIP
It was probably because she inhaled a whole bunch of smoke. 

NEEDY
No. It was something evil. 

CHIP
You might want to talk to the school shrink, Needy. I’m not saying that to be a dillhole. I’m actually kinda concerned. 

NEEDY
Chip, I’m a National Merit Scholar. I don’t tell whoppers and I’m not crazy. 

Then Jennifer seduces Jock Jonas into the woods and promptly turns into a demon and eats him.  The police find the body and Jennifer goes swimming.

Now I think that all constitutes an entire act.  It feels fairly complete, and the scene of Jennifer swimming in a lake feels like a good act finale.  So I’m marking this as an act.

Again, a three-act purist might call it part of an act.  But it feels fairly important and fairly complete.  So separate act it is!

And now we’re into act three.  We now know that Jennifer is a monster, but nobody else knows it yet.  Needy knows something strange is going on with her, but not how strange.

In Act Three, the town reacts to the tragedy.  Then, after a month, Jennifer starts looking tired and ragged.  So she sets up a date with Colin the goth.  And she eats him.

While that’s going on, Needy and Chip have sex for what appears to be their first time.  But it’s interrupted when Needy senses something strange going on with Jennifer.  (See, Needy’s got a strange psychic bond with Jennifer.  We’ve seen it in play a couple times before.)  She leaves Chip’s house, encounters post-murder Jennifer, flees the scene.  And gets back to her house.

So, another act, another dead high school boy.

And a note: this is awfully repetitive.  The big beats in this act aren’t that different from the beats in the previous act.  Everyone is upset about a tragedy.  Low Shoulder is starting to get big.  Needy and Chip have a moment but Chip is oblivious to what’s really going on with Needy.  Jennifer eats a high school boy.

With a little tweaking, you could drop this act entirely and not lose much.  I don’t think it’s really needed.  It heightens the tension a little, but doesn’t do much for the plot.

A lot of screenwriting gurus argue that anything that can be dropped should be dropped.  I wouldn’t go that far.  But I do think this act is spinning its wheels a bit.  I think the script would be improved if there were something significantly different in this act instead of it being just a somewhat heightened version of act two.

But on to act four.  Which is rather different.  Jennifer comes to see Needy and tells her what happened that night after she went off in the van with Low Shoulder.  It’s told largely in flashbacks, and it leads to Jennifer’s murder.

This feels like a major interlude in the movie.  After things have been happening pretty continuously in the main timeline, here we break away for a significant period of time to view Jennifer’s death in a flashback.  It is different in substance and style.  And therefore, I think it counts as a separate act.

But it ends, and now we’re now into Act Five, the big climax.  There’s a dance.  Jennifer attacks Chip.  Needy comes to Chip’s defense, but Chip still ends up dead.  Then Needy kills Jennifer, this time for good.  Pretty typical big climax with lots of killing and the final confrontation between protagonist and antagonist.

Then we have an epilog, which returns us to our wrapping story.  Needy is back in the mental hospital, but we discover that she inherited some powers from demon Jennifer.  Needy uses these powers to escape, then hits the road to hunt down Low Shoulder.

We see the grisly aftermath of her visit in a series of short clips and photos during the credits.  Needy has found and killed Low Shoulder.  And the film is over.

So the way I read it: we have a prolog that’s part of a wrapping story, five acts, and an epilog that finishes up the wrapping story.  And something we haven’t seen yet – a credits scene that advances the plot in a significant way.  That is, in fact, the primary catharsis of the film.

Those five acts are: setup, Jennifer’s first kill, Jennifer’s second kill, the story of Jennifer’s sacrifice, and climax.

Note that we can measure these acts by the deaths that occur in them.  Act one includes the deaths in the bar fire.  Act two includes Jennifer’s murder of Jonas.  Act three includes Jennifer’s murder of Colin.  Act four has Jennifer’s death at the hands of Low Shoulder.  And in Act five,  Jennifer murders Chip, then Needy kills Jennifer.  This is a movie where the murders are story milestones.  It’s not one of those films that saves up a bunch of deaths for a big climax.  And, in fact, there is no large collection of deaths at the end.  Chip and Jennifer both die, but nobody else does.

Now one of my little biases.  I like my action to grow to a climax.  And I like my body count to grow as well.  I particularly like films like GET OUT, where the final act included all the killing in one big explosion of violence.

I don’t require that in my movies, but it is my preference.  That’s not what happens here, and I think that’s part of the overall sloppiness of the structure of this film.

We’ve kind of covered how three act structure would regard this film.  But do note one thing: there is not a clear midpoint in this movie.  There is no single scene that shocks us and flips the film around.  There are two candidates for that scene: Jennifer’s murders of Jonas and Colin.  But neither is quite at the midpoint: Jonas’s death is a little early, Colin’s a little late.  Here again I think the redundancy makes things messy.  If we dropped my act three, where Jennifer kills Colin, we’d have the same structure as many of the other films we’ve looked at: a clean four acts with a solid midpoint, where a three-act structure purist would be happy.

But they didn’t do that.  And so we have something a little more messy, with no true midpoint.

All of this is more support for my argument that the third act is redundant and could easily be removed.  Not just to satisfy the purists, and not just to clean up the structure.  But because it really is redundant.

In terms of Save the Cat and Hero’s Journey, this is one of those cases where there are several beats from both in the film, but some are missing.  And it feels more coincidental when they are present.  I’m not going to go into detail, but you can see the Storylanes analysis if you want to see more.

Now, I’ve talked about some of the structural flaws I see in this movie.  In addition to what I’ve already noted, I see three major problems.

First, the opening of the movie sets up the question of how did a normal high school girl end up in a mental hospital assaulting the staff.  But the movie doesn’t really answer that question.  Needy goes through some rough stuff, and we do learn why she was arrested: it’s for the murder of Jennifer.  But why does she violently act out?  She really doesn’t seem like the same person at all.  

There’s the suggestion of an answer when we find out that she gained powers from being bitten by demon Jennifer: maybe it affected her behavior also.  But this is only a suggestion.  And one could guess that the trauma that she went through made her this way, but that’s not clear either.  So the movie doesn’t pay off the question given in the setup.

Second, the catharsis that I, as an audience member, craved was to see Jennifer get demonic revenge on Low Shoulder for what they did to her.  And it’s set up – when they show up to play at the school dance, I thought terrific, we’re going to end in a good old school dance bloodbath.  Jennifer’s going to go all Carrie on their asses.  I was looking forward to it.

But that’s not where the film went.  There was no story reason to have Low Shoulder show up at the dance at all.  Jennifer never does get back at them.  We don’t see horrible retribution leveled on them as we so much wish.

Now at the end, Needy’s going hunting for them.  And in the credits, we see that she gets them.

But this is a strange choice.  I can’t think of another movie where the primary catharsis of the film was relegated to some stills played during the credits.

Now a note that Mrs Storylanes gave when I told her of my objection.  She said that there were good thematic reasons to let Low Shoulder get away.  It spoke to how the powerful prey on young women and get away with it.

I can see that.  It’s giving up a desired catharsis for thematic resonance, but you could make an argument for that.  I’ve been known to do that myself in my screenplays.

But if that’s what the movie is trying to say, why end it with Needy going hunting for Low Shoulder?  Why add that credit sequence?  That strips away the thematic resonance without delivering the strong catharsis that we want.

All in all, I found it disappointing.

And my third major structural flaw: it felt like a key part of Needy’s character journey is learning to be independent of Jennifer.  That a key climax of her arc was the moment when she finally said,

NEEDY You’re a jerk. 

JENNIFER Nice insult, Hannah Montana. Got any more harsh digs? 

NEEDY You know what? You were never a good friend. Ever. Even when we were little. You used to steal my toys and pour lemonade on my bed and make me be Ugly Ashley when we played Barbies! 

JENNIFER And now I’m eating your boyfriend! See? At least I’m consistent. 

But this happens too early in the film.  For this to have maximum power, Needy should make this declaration when she’s about to kill Jennifer.  Instead, in that scene Diablo Cody decides to get clever and have Needy say: “Know what this is for? Cutting boxes. Cross out Jennifer!”  Clever, but it doesn’t tie to their long friendship.

I think that Needy should realize that Jennifer has never been her friend in the same scene where she kills Jennifer.  This would be more dramatically apt.

Now one bonus issue that I have with the film.  Jennifer doesn’t seem to change much when she becomes possessed by a demon.  She’s nasty after becoming a demon.  But she was always nasty.  Now she just starts eating boys instead of bad-mouthing them as she does here, before she ever becomes a demon: “He thinks he’s cute enough for me. No wonder he’s in retard math. “

So, those are my issues with the film.  Is there something I like here?

Well, yes.  First off, there’s the quality of the dialogue.  Listen to this scene where Jennifer, Needy, and Chip are all present:

JENNIFER (gloating) Guess who’s got the whip ‘til 11:30? A 2003 Chrysler Sebring and it’s all mine. 

NEEDY Wow.

JENNIFER You’re lucky you get to ride with me to the club in style! 

JENNIFER It smells like Thai food in here. (beat) Have you guys been fucking? 

NEEDY You’re gross! 

She shoves Jennifer and they begin wrestling playfully. CHIP slumps against the wall, staring awestruck at Jennifer’s cleavage. 

JENNIFER Okay, let’s go to the club. 

The three of them shuffle onto the porch. Needy locks the door. 

CHIP The Carousel is not a club. 

JENNIFER Eat my ass, Chip. You’re just jello ‘cause you’re not invited. 

CHIP I’m not jello! That place is gross. Everyone there has a mustache. 

JENNIFER You’re totally jello! You’re lime green jello and you can’t even admit it. 

The girls scamper toward the car. 

CHIP (calling after them) Stop kidnapping my girlfriend! 

There’s so much great stuff going on in that scene, stuff that establishes these characters and their relationships.  Jennifer, all happy about having the keys to a Chrysler Sebring, thus establishing that she is much more small-town then she likes to admit.  Chip, definitely jealous of Jennifer’s relationship with Needy, trying to deflect it but not getting away with it.  Needy, hardly in the scene at all except for a little wrestling with Jennifer that ends with her slammed against a wall.  She’s definitely subordinated to both Chip and Jennifer, who fight over her.  She’s going to have to step up and assert herself before the film is over.

And the dialogue is lots of fun, with clever made-up slang.  Note that this script doesn’t just use terms we’ve heard over and over.  It’s fresh, but still feels authentic.  Good stuff.

Second, there is some real thematic resonance here.  Once again, we see that horror is a place where a screenwriter can go heavy on metaphor and theme.  In this case, Jennifer suffers terrible harm at the hands of entitled young men.  And this turns her into a monster who in turn preys on young men.  It’s powerful stuff, and there’s some serious resonance to this.  I can easily see why this film is now regarded as carrying the themes of the Me Too movement.

So, lessons learned from this film.

First, there’s that thematic resonance that I just mentioned.  Any film is elevated by having solid thematic resonance at its heart.  This one is no exception.  Screenwriters, figure out what your story means and craft the plot around that.

Second, a lesson we’ve seen before: good dialogue also elevates any story.  Diablo Cody has a great ear for the language of teenagers.  That’s on display here.  It’s good stuff and makes the movie better.  Spend those extra hours crafting your sentences – it’s worth it.

And third, one that I think is shown by this film in the negative.  Structure matters.  I believe this film could have packed a more powerful punch if it had corrected the various structural flaws I mentioned.  Figure out what it wants to say about the powerful who prey on women: give us catharsis of seeing them brought down violently, or keep the thematic resonance of leaving them at a high point.

Either of these approaches can work, though the catharsis is clearly more satisfying.  And I don’t think it’s cheap to pick catharsis over being strictly true to theme.  Take, for example, GET OUT.  We get the catharsis of seeing these horrible people who viciously use young blacks get taken down, even though the movie wouldn’t ever say that racism itself is defeated.  The battle is won, but the war continues.  I think JENNIFER’S BODY would benefit from that approach.

So that’s JENNIFER’S BODY.  I found it interesting and useful, and I hope you did too.  

Until then, check us out at Storylanes.com, where you’ll find the script of this episode, a link to the JENNIFER’S BODY screenplay, the Storylanes chart for this movie, and links to some recent articles that revisit this film.

And if you enjoyed this podcast, please leave a review on whichever Podcast service you heard it on.  That will help others discover us.

This is Joe Dzikiewicz and the Storylanes podcast.  Talk at you later.

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The Storylanes Podcast gives a screenwriter’s point of view of the structure of the screenplay of movies and TV shows.  Each episode does a deep-dive analysis of one movie or show, examining how the story is structured and how al the elements come together to create the story.

Each episode also includes a chart of the scenes and other key elements of the script.  You’ll find those charts here, along with the scripts of the episodes themselves.