Moments before she kills everyone at the senior prom, Carrie White hears voices: her classmates’ taunts, her mother’s warnings, her teacher’s false promises, and a perfunctory apology from her principal. “We’re all sorry, Cassie.” Cassie. He can’t even get her fucking name right.
Even if you haven’t seen Carrie, Brian De Palma’s iconic horror film, you probably know the story. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a shy teenager tormented by her peers and abused by her religious fanatic mother, discovers that she is telekinetic. After her schoolmates play a horrible trick on her at the senior prom, she uses her newfound power to murder them all, then goes home, crucifies her mother, and dies as her house collapses on her.
What Carrie shares with High School Reunion, Sarah Jacobson’s rarely seen DIY documentary that runs shorter than Carrie’s prom scene, is the basic premise of a young woman getting revenge on her high school peers. From there the films diverge, thankfully, but running through both is a vengeance that stems from a need not for justice so much as for recognition.
In 1999, Jacobson brought a video camera to her ten-year high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota, “the snottiest suburb in the Twin Cities area.” Jacobson had hated high school and like many teens she’d dreamed that one day, when she got famous, she’d come back to make everyone jealous. In her twenties, she made celebrated films like Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, a punk feminist answer to John Hughes movies, and I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, a scrappy black-and-white short about a 19-year-old who goes around killing sexist men. If not quite famous, Jacobson was certainly successful, so she returned to Edina to enact her revenge.
For most of High School Reunion, Jacobson’s camera is in night vision-mode: everything glows mint green, accentuating the country club flavor of the attendees’ crisp button-ups and conservative maxi-dresses. Pupils look buggy and enormous, which only adds to the sense that everyone there is wasted. Jacobson is great at short shots: a sad dance floor, a hand clutching an overfull drink, a two-line snippet of conversation. Each time we meet a new person, the film cuts to their senior photo, which is a small act of revenge in itself.
The format of the video is simple: camera in hand, Jacobson mingles with her old schoolmates. The film is confrontational—Jacobson extracts apologies from some of her former tormenters—but it isn’t cruel. It’s mostly embarrassing, often funny, and even humanizing to watch people confront their high school selves. Just as someone is telling Jacobson that she shouldn’t stereotype him for having played football, a gay man who came out as soon as he left high school enters the frame. “He used to beat me up on the bus!” he laughs. “Do you remember that? All the time!”
A lot of tiptoeing goes on at events like these (“There was nobody in high school I disliked”) but Jacobson cuts through polite conversation with genuine enthusiasm. An old schoolmate explains that he makes soccer headgear for a living and Jacobson blurts, “How the fuck did you get into that?” When a devout Christian says that she now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, Jacobson excitedly recounts her trip to the Waco compound. “There’s an amazing death tour in Texas!”
Columbine looms over both Carrie and High School Reunion, which was filmed not long after the massacre. “So you were pro-Columbine?” Jacobson asks a former classmate.
“No I wasn’t,” he says. “But I understood parts of it.”
“Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” he says, “It’s just, you could kinda see a lot of Edina in that community I think. There were probably an awful lot of pep fests about an awful lot of stuff that had nothing to do with real life.”
Stephen King, who originated the character of Carrie in his 1974 novel, has called her a “female version of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.” (He also once said that Carrie was “in a sense, the original riot grrl.”) But Sissy Spacek doesn’t play Carrie as a basement premeditator, she plays a woman possessed by her fury. When she kills, she looks as though she’s in a trance. Carrie depicts an archetypal female rage: mystical, out of control, and long suppressed. When Carrie knocks a boy off his bike or shatters a mirror with her mind, Hitchcockian violins screech like the whistle of a teakettle rattling with steam.
We have many real-life, terrifying examples of what alienated teenage boys are capable of, but we don’t seem to know, or care, what tormented girls go on to do. At the end of I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Jacobson’s debut film, the protagonist explains that the systemic silencing of her rage has led her to kill. “No one wants to listen to my story,” she says, holding a broken bottle to a hippie drifter’s throat. “And then I get this anger that I can’t express because it’s not right for a woman to have any rage. You can have your fucking James Dean image and be a hero to society, and I have just as much pain if not more, and no one can even look me in the eye and say ‘I’m sorry!'” But she drops the bottle and decides to stop killing. “I’m gonna do something worse,” she says. “Whether you want to ignore me or invalidate my stories, I’m gonna tell them anyways. You can’t keep me quiet.”
Jacobson’s revenge-through-recognition fantasy reaches its fairytale conclusion when a former football player, high on Ecstasy, hits on her and invites her to a secret after-party hosted by her high school crush. It’s the first popular party she’s ever been to. The last shot in the film is also Jacobson’s last laugh, as the camera pans over a keg in a slop sink, a washer/dryer set, a hot water heater, and a handful of 28-year-olds dancing to Prince in a basement.