Angela Robinson has seen a lot of teen flicks, especially of the ’80s variety. Her first feature, D.E.B.S., is full of flourishes that recall Pretty in Pink (1986) and Weird Science (1984), among others. When we first meet our team of perky sorority girl spies, each is waking in her color-coordinated room, à la Heathers (1989). Just in case you missed these ’80s connections, the film also prominently features the songs “Love Cats,” by The Cure, “Temptation,” by New Order, and “A Little Respect,” by Erasure.
But D.E.B.S. isn’t only loving the ’80s. It’s an homage that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s as if Robinson decided to reimagine her own past. Growing up loving teen flicks, what would an openly lesbian director perhaps wish for in her own queer past? A teen movie as outrageous, forced, and idealized as nearly all ’80s teen films, yet speaking to her desires and identity. So what we have in D.E.B.S. is a kind of lovingly nostalgic lesbian camp, where the girls kick ass all over the place and the lead girl gets the girl in the end. It’s corny, clichéd, and often an absolute hoot.
Amy (Sara Foster), Max (Meagan Good), Janet (Jill Ritchie), and Dominique (Devon Aoki) are a crack team of spies who attend Jamison College, headquarters of the D.E.B.S., a clandestine group that recruits girls via a “secret exam” embedded in the SAT that gauges the ability to “lie, cheat, fight, and kill.” After four years of hard work, this team has made it to the top of the heap. Then along comes super-villain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster). The girls are deployed to see what Diamond is up to, which sets off the events that will bring the team, and particularly lovelorn Amy, into repeated contact with the villainess.
At the beginning of the film, Amy breaks up with her boyfriend Bobby (Geoff Stults) by phone. In the car on the way to school, she explains to the rest of her team “I’m just not in love. I want to be in love.” The stage is set and all that’s really left is a rather by-the-numbers plot that conspires to get Amy and Lucy together. Amy’s reticence to fall in love with a girl must be overcome and Lucy must try to “go good.” I’m not giving anything away here: it’s clear within the first 10 minutes that D.E.B.S. will have a happy ending.
So the real fun is in the details. Aoki makes the most of her French accent and affect: she is never, and I mean never, without a freshly lit cigarette hanging from her mouth, has a different lover in her bed each morning, and when she finds out about Amy’s lesbian love, remarks, “You are not as boring as I thought.” It’s a delight to watch all the girls chasing around after the bad guys and girl in pleated schoolgirl mini-skirts and tight button up shirts, but Aoki is particularly dashing in her totally inappropriate high-heeled Mary-Janes and ridiculously large gun. There’s also a running bit about the calling card Lucy Diamond leaves at the scene of the crime, a path strewn with diamonds. And Lucy’s car has a vanity plate that reads “NDASKY.” These senseless, over-the-top details make D.E.B.S. tick.
But Robinson doesn’t just camp up teen romance and action-adventure. She also plays with social mores and stereotypes. After Amy has run away with Lucy for the first time, the D.E.B.S. and federal government, believing her kidnapped, launch a massive girl hunt. After they find her, in bed with Lucy, she returns to the sorority house. D.E.B.S. Headmistress (Holland Taylor, woefully underused) scolds her for her selfishness, and accuses her of wanting merely to have her “collegiate lesbian fling in style.” Later, Amy confronts Bobby, who asks her to the prom, oops, I mean the college’s end of year formal, “Endgame.” and he confesses, in an effort to win her back, “You know, that whole lezzie thing, it’s kind of hot.” Straight boys love “lesbian” sex and straight girls are more sexually experimental in college than boys, so much so that we’ve even got an acronym for it: L.U.G.s (ask around if you don’t know what it means).
The major problem with D.E.B.S. is that is runs of out steam quickly. By the time we reach the “prom,” you are more than ready for the star-crossed lovers to get to the getting out of town. That’s camp: it always seems flimsy, because it takes the most superficial aspects of an object, style, or genre for parody and play. But as all good campers know, this superficiality thinly masks seriousness. Robinson’s camping adroitly calls attention to the queer undercurrents swirling around in the buddy/action/superhero film. D.E.B.S. is like Kathryn Bigelow’s barely repressed homo lovefest, Point Break (1991), but without the repression and with baby dykes instead of the ostensibly “straight” characters played by Keanu and Patrick. D.E.B.S. challenges us to rethink our straight-up relationship to the genres it parodies.