Indiewire’s Girl Talk column is a bi-weekly look at women in film — past, present and future.
“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” the sequel to the 2014 hit “Neighbors,” hit theaters this past weekend amidst occasionally polarizing claims that the film – now focused on an out-of-control sorority wreaking havoc on the perpetually unlucky Radner family – was a good and progressive step for the comedy genre (while most critics agreed that the film has a progressive worldview, some thought that element diminished its comedy and felt shoe-horned in). A feminist retelling of the original that is still very funny in its own right, “Neighbors 2 makes it clear from the start that it’s not just another rowdy and raunchy college party film, but a rowdy and raunchy college party film that is actively engaged with issues of equality and representation. But the film’s most progressive element isn’t based in its showcase of gender, but of human nature: Being progressive is no guarantee against behaving like perfect assholes.
The film isn’t just a bold new entry in the genre because it centers on the actions of young women, but because it’s unafraid to make them as dumb, immature and irrational as their male counterparts. You want equality? Well, it’s not always pretty.
The original “Neighbors” pitted an outrageous fraternity (led by Zac Efron’s Teddy, who’s back for the sequel, and learning things about being sensitive to others for good measure) against the sweet but in over their heads Radner family with a clear set of heroes (the Radners, natch) and villains (Delta Psi, who weren’t so much evil as criminally stupid). In “Neighbors 2,” the Radners are as well-meaning as ever, but the filmmakers initially tilt the story to favor Chloe Grace Moretz’s Shelby and her pack of sisterhood-seeking gal pals at the newly formed Kappa Nu sorority.
For Shelby, the decision to start her own sorority after a bad experience rushing a traditional one (a bad situation made worse by a revolting frat party), is rooted in a very genuine desire for equality. Once Kappa Nu is formed, Shelby and her sisters set about organizing events like the Feminist Icon Party (featuring at least two ladies in costume as Hillary Clinton, along with a particularly hip Oprah) and watching “The Fault In Our Stars” and openly sobbing. Sweet, right?
All that nobility gets pushed to the side when the Radners (especially Seth Rogen’s Mac, who becomes Another Man Telling Them What To Do) beg the Kappu Nu sisters to tone down the partying until they can (finally) sell their house next door. Suddenly, Kappa Nu is unleashed,
eager to battle back the
man and the establishment and the kind of behavioral expectations that have
been heaped on them for so many years.
Kappa Nu doesn’t respond with anything even resembling grace or charm or understanding – they go totally, utterly bonkers, and not in the fun way.
One of the film’s characters
comments early on that the girls want to be “as dumb as the boys,”
and they deliver that and then some. From trying to break up Mac and Kelly’s
(Rose Byrne) marriage (while Kelly is pregnant with their second child,
unsettlingly enough) to actually robbing the Radners of nearly all their
belongings (and, no, they don’t ever get them back) to narcing on drug dealers so they can sell weed at a school-sponsored event, the Kappa Nu girls pull
zero punches, and neither does “Neighbors 2.” The film is utterly, wildly disinterested in providing a safety valve that might soften the edge off the women’s very, very bad behavior. Mac even wonders if they are more terrifying enemies than Delta Psi, coming to the conclusion that, yes, they are.
While we’ve gotten a taste of some other bad-as-they-want-to-be comedies starring women, from “Bachelorette” to “Spring Breakers,” “Neighbors 2” is the first feature to wholesale hijack the raunchy college comedy genre, one that’s so long belonged to men. Think “Revenge of the Nerds” or “Animal House,” where a woman’s self expression was limited to, say, fondling herself while looking out a window. Even the few films in the genre that do focus squarely on women, like “Little Darlings” or “H.O.T.S.,” only have room for bad girls when they are acting naughty in service to sexual urges. Women behaving badly, on par with their male peers, was so for long not considered the stuff of funny, and that’s just not the case anymore.
In the world of “Neighbors 2,” gender isn’t a barrier of behavior: The girls can be just as bad as the boys, and happily so.
“Neighbors 2” is currently in theaters.