Olivia (Madelaine Petsch) has her heart set on attending Stanford University. She’s a senior at a private high school, captain of the debate team, and has her every move planned down to the minute. Her dedication to schoolwork and her obsession with Stanford are in part because of her best friend Jane’s (Chloe Yu) recent suicide. Her mental wellbeing is further impacted by the news that Stanford has deferred her. Olivia’s panic attacks grow increasingly out of control, with frightening consequences.
While Petsch may not look like she belongs in high school anymore, she has a complete understanding of the pain of being a teenager. Perhaps it is because of her years as fan favorite Cheryl Blossom on Riverdale that Petsch is so readily able to dial into the dramatics of a high schooler. It’s more than just adolescent moodiness that Petsch channels in Olivia. She’s able to portray how high-stakes everything feels when you’re young. Grades, college acceptances, and the loss of friends all feel like the end of the world, but in reality, this is just the beginning for young people.
Jane attempts to add a thriller angle to a story of an ambitious high schooler giving in to dark impulses to achieve her goals. While Jane dies at the beginning of the film, she appears throughout the movie as a ghost that follows Olivia around. These jump-scare sightings increase when Olivia and her friend Izzy (Chloe Bailey) decide to use Jane’s social media to target people at their school. Jane is Olivia’s ghostly guide as she descends into the world of cyberbullying.
For far too long, Jane is simply a looming presence that exacerbates Olivia’s poor mental health. This should create tension, given how close Olivia and Jane used to be, but the audience knows nothing of their friendship and doesn’t understand why these appearances are so frightening for Olivia. It seems like there is something deeper than just Olivia coping with the loss of her friend. Given how quickly Olivia turns to devious schemes in a desperate plea to wrong the people she deems responsible for her Stanford deferment, it wouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Jane’s death was not by her own hand. Of course, that’s not the case, but there is something missing in the depiction of the friendship between Olivia and Jane. Something to explain the frequent sightings of Jane as Olivia’s decisions become more and more dangerous.
While Olivia is an extremely ambitious student, the lengths she goes to to earn her “rightful” place in the hallowed halls of Stanford feel out of character. There’s being ruthlessly motivated academically, and then there’s murder. Jane wants the audience to believe that there is only a thin line between the two, and that it would be easy to travel down a murderous path for the sake of success. While that may be true for other films and characters, it’s simply not the case for this film or for Olivia.
There are a multitude of ideas at work within Jane, including the societal pressures of attending a good college, the mental health of teenagers, and how social media removes so many barriers to bullying. It’s no secret that the definition of success is formed by social media, and overusing these platforms can have negative effects on the mental health of the user. It’s this surface level that Jane operates on. The film goes no deeper than the simple idea that social media and weighty expectations can send someone into a downward spiral.
This movie is also strangely flippant about Jane’s suicide. The audience knows nothing about her, except that she used to be friends with Izzy and Olivia and that she was depressed. Her death is used as a catalyst, but not in a meaningful way. Nothing is ever said about her character and with a few minor edits, her character could be written out of the film entirely. To have a teen character commit suicide during the opening moments of a film and then only vaguely allude to teen suicide and depression feels careless.
Jane is a great showcase for Petsch and the future that awaits her when Riverdale ends next year. While the script has a few holes that make the plot too rocky to fully enjoy, Petsch is a powerhouse whose career will be exciting to follow.