[CW: Discussion about consent, description of the circumstances of a sexual assault]
The 2000 Amy Heckerling film “Loser” is one, I think, kind of gets lost in the crush of movies of that era starring this cast of actors, exploring similar themes, and given where may of the principals went after this, it’s potentially understandable. Like most Heckerling films, it has a cult following, and for the most part, they age extremely well.
Note: this is a pretty spoiler-heavy plot analysis, but I recommend watching it anyway, because there will be a lot to consume in this film beyond this aspect. You can, however, stop here and return if you don’t want the spoiler!
Jason Biggs, a scholarship student at NYU, is assigned Liam McPoyle and a couple of other actors I don’t remember, as roommates; he’s the working class rube they end up scamming into moving off-campus.
Mena Suvari is a fellow hardship case at NYU, who is also having an affair with Greg Kinnear’s character, a professor who holds Jason Biggs’ Paul’s fate in the balance with regards to his scholarship, and believing that Paul is involved with his roommates’ attempt to blackmail him, finds himself in a struggle between himself and Paul for the love of Mena’s character.
The reason I say this movie ages well is that it’s very clear what is, morally, correct, and what is indefensible— there’s a notable subplot about the roommates using Rohypnol to sexually assault female students, and a lot of dialogue spent demarcating what is, and is not, consent. These things, while Paul, as a character, does not handle the situation admirably initially, the meta-narrative is clear about who is at fault when anyone is sexually assaulted; the person doing the assaulting. Full stop.
Notable in this film is the discussion early in the film between Suvari’s Dora, and Kinnear’s character, about how he understands the power imbalance inherent to their relationship, but that she is of age, is consenting to their relationship, but he employs, both, that there is a power imbalance and that he’s actually somehow on the losing end because he bears the risk, which is not actually true; his arc in the film entirely depends upon abuse tactics intending to belittle her intellect, and ultimately, uses Paul’s actions (which I’ll explain in a moment) to manipulate her into becoming his financial dependent.
Paul, having discovered Dora after his roomates’ party having been drugged (by his roommates— he was waiting for her at a date she did not show up to, as a result of this drugging), he takes her to the ER, and upon finding that the professor is her emergency contact, he, in good faith, reaches out to the professor to get her help. Realizing Kinnear is manipulating her, he sends her flowers in Kinnear’s name, not knowing what to do, but continues caring for her as she has nowhere else to go, and their friendship grows. Kinnear, realizing the opportunity in this, allows her to move in with him (she had been, functionally, homeless having lost her job). She ultimately leaves Kinnear when his motivations, and Paul’s distancing (to avoid a conflict), become clear. This is partly my gripe with Paul.
At one point in the film, rather than confronting his roommates when their activities become apparent, he swaps their drugs. Instead of coming clean to Dora, he respects her agency in choosing to live with the professor, but neglects his duty to inform her of the misleading nature of what she’s walking in to; he’s fully aware the professor is being blackmailed, and much of this is to prevent Dora from talking.
Paul’s narrative manages to recover without really addressing that he took the Ovidian path through this struggle by combating, but not confronting, the actions of his roommates— “you will be safest in the middle”, says Ovid in Metamorphoses, but for whom? Certainly himself, but to address the individual goal of stopping his roommates, but not speaking out (to NYU’s residential services, etc. to whom he has access, because that’s how he was kicked out in the first place, failing to inform them of the roommates’ harmful attitudes and gaslighting), and only acting when it affected someone he knew personally, it neither really served Dora, or his community, who he could have, and arguably was obligated to, made a report.
I understand this is a fictional story, with a lot of narrative constraints that prevent this from becoming bureacratically sound, however, I think Heckerling’s direction, and the script’s framing of events, gives a lot of latitude to the notion that the meta-narrative is that Paul is not a dirtbag, but he’s not breaking down any barriers either as an ally. Perhaps this is the point; you can’t equivocate in acting on moral objection without considering the further harm that results from a half-measure response.
The meta-narrative establishes that power dynamics in a relationship are key, an imbalance can be abused, coercion of any type is an inherent wrong, and potentially, so is not speaking out. It’s a call to introspection— Paul did a good thing, but did he do the right things? That it works out suggests that, sure, the things he did were right, but the movie only has a narrative because he equivocated.
Consider this to other movies released in 1999-2000— Bring It On, notable for its tone-deafness around meritocracy and racial appropriation, and some choice use of some homophobic language, while otherwise being considered a top relic of its time; the American Pie films, similar issues, and almost the inverse of what happens in this film re: consent. Heckerling explores these themes, and depicts them similar, even as far back as Clueless.
This 1995 film does an excellent job depicting a similar scenario— Cher is friendly with Elton, who interprets this as consent to hook-up, which she declines, but he persists, and after a classist tirade about why he would be uninterested in Tai, makes a renewed attempt at fulfilling his entitlement, and after Cher rebuffs him again, he leaves her to own her own devices, and immediately gets robbed. The meta-narrative is that Elton is unequivocally wrong, that consent was the key issue, and to a lesser extent, that misleading Tai was also wrong, especially as a means to manipulate both girls.
The film, of course, like Loser, has its issues, but there are key things that it gets right that differentiate themselves from other films of their respective times, and why they’re remembered so universally fondly today.
I believe, as you might have guessed, that a lot of genuinely good films, either intentionally or otherwise, have underlying social messages— art has always been a conduit for social movement, and I don’t think our modern era is any exception, and we’re finally seeing the 90’s and early 2000’s as being viable for cultural reappraisal. For whatever reason, the American Pie series aside, Jason Biggs is disproportionally in them (i.e. Saving Silverman being the other example of his character understanding certain things absent the rest of the zeitgeist) in a socially conscious role. Loser takes this opportunity to lay down the law, so to speak, on a progressive, growth-oriented mindset about contemporaneous views on sex, relationships, and youth culture, while the moral ambiguity of its characters’ actions remain unresolved beyond this Heckerlingesque meta-narrative.
I found it interesting that the marketers for this film would choose to bundle Wheatus’ “Teenage Dirtbag” with this film— Jason Biggs plays the eponymous dirtbag in the music video, yet in the film of which it is a centerpiece could not less embody this ideal (of ironically being written off because of a loose association to something horrendous), and while in the music video he’s simply not on the radar of a popular girl (played by Suvari, the parallel being obvious). The track is, ostensibly, about the Ricky Kasso murder, and not simply being an naive idealist, or even just being disliked— I think this does a service to, both, the song and the film. Biggs, in Loser, plays a chatacrer that gives us a framework for understanding response as an ally to harm from the powerful class, whomever that may be— Wheatus’ track has its own validity (which may require its own piece lol) but beyond the aesthetic of the track, has little relevance to this film, and I think perhaps blunts the edge of this good insight into the issues this, otherwise comedic, film chooses to tackle.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
If you’re a subscriber, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at @jmarhee, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a community link.