Based on that description alone, it is easy to see that there isn’t anything groundbreaking about the film’s premise. There have already been a slew of kid spy films within the last 15 years that have explored this territory. In fact, Barely Lethal feels like a film that should have been released in the early 2000s when Spy Kids was still fresh and Agent Cody Banks’s Frankie Muniz was still relevant. But I digress.
The film follows Agent 83 (Hailee Steinfeld), who is brought up in a secret school for assassins. Because she hasn’t had the chance to live a “normal” life, she fakes her death and poses as a foreign exchange student in hopes of experiencing the trials and tribulations of high school life as seen on TV. Unfortunately the awkwardness of adolescence comes at Megan with full force in a fish out of water sort of way, which results in her sticking out like a sore thumb and eventually getting caught by her assassin school master, aptly named Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson). Meanwhile, the assassin world is under the threat of Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba). Thus, Agent 83 is forced to balance both her assassin status with the drama of high school.
Whereas the aforementioned kid spy films focused a lot more on the spy aspect, Barely Lethal operates in the opposite direction. The film is more oriented on the high school facets of teen spy life, which distorts it into an odd teen romp sandwiched between a lightweight action film. I say it’s odd because it plays like a Disney Channel Original Movie only with more foul language and obscene behavior. I was actually surprised with how some situations played out. Not that I disapproved of such comedic obscenities, but most of its edgier content seemed arbitrary. Ultimately, the film fails because of its inability to make up its mind in terms of what kind of movie it wants to be.
Luckily the film contains a talented cast whose performances allow the film to be watchable and sometimes enjoyable. Steinfeld is charming as usual as Agent 83 and she has a fun chemistry with actress Dove Cameron, who plays 83’s foreign exchange partner. In the end, I wish this were just a simple high school comedy. That way, the film wouldn’t be too inconsistent and both Steinfeld and Cameron would be given more room to shine. I guess for now, the healthy alternative would be Pitch Perfect 2, which features Steinfeld in a similarly goofy role as a talented youngster looking to fit in.