The film begins with the song “Kids in America” by Muff, as the credits roll, in bright colors and playful fonts. A montage of youthful reverie begins. We see a white Jeep filled with teenagers drive by, and then Cher Horowitz smirking and walking down the street carrying shopping bags. She walks with her best friend down the street. A boy playfully falls off a waterfall into a swimming pool, as a girl in the foreground paints her toenails. Cher eats a dollop of whipped cream, as some of the friends at the swimming pool laugh. We cut to Cher laughing with her friends, showing close-ups of the girls' boots, their smiles, a manicured hand feeding a boy a cherry, a girl on a cell phone. The shot shifts to a large group of teenagers in a Jeep, shot from above, then again to Cher and friends laughing over milkshakes as “Kids in America” continues to play. In voiceover Cher addresses the audience: “So ok, you’re probably going: ‘Is this a Noxzema commercial or what?” We see her tousling her long blonde hair, as she continues, “But seriously…I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl,” as she rushes over to her large closet.
We see a computer screen in close-up, Cher presses icons on the screen in order to pick out particular combinations of tops and skirts. When she pairs two items of clothing together, the screen buzzes and tells her it’s a “mis-match.” Cher cringes at the screen, then tries another, and the screen presents an icon version of Cher, modeling the outfit, which makes Cher nod in approval. The shot cuts to Cher’s father, shot from behind, pushing open double doors and making his way down the staircase of the house, as Cher says in voiceover, “Daddy’s a litigator. Those are the scariest kinds of lawyers. Even Lucy, our maid, is terrified of him.” We see Lucy gasp in fear and scurry away as Mr. Horowitz nears the bottom of the stairs. Cher details that her father makes $500 an hour “to fight with people” and we see her in the kitchen in a yellow plaid outfit pouring a glass of orange juice and greeting her father. She tries to give her father the orange juice telling him that he needs his vitamin C, but he resists and searches frustratedly for his briefcase. Cher tells him that she thinks they ought to go out to Malibu soon to visit his parents, and Mr. Horowitz looks at her exasperated, calling them “brain-dead low-lifes.”
As Mr. Horowitz goes to leave, he tells Cher that “Josh is in town, he’s coming to dinner,” and Cher becomes upset, asking him why. Mr. Horowitz tells him it’s because he’s her stepbrother. Cher continues that Mr. Horowitz was hardly even married to Josh’s mother and that the marriage was 5 years ago. Mr. Horowitz grows impatient, tells her, “We divorce wives, not children,” and storms out. The scene shifts abruptly to Cher driving the white Jeep from earlier down the street as “Just a Girl” by No Doubt plays. In voiceover, Cher gushes about the features of the Jeep before revealing that she doesn’t yet have her license but “needed something to learn on.” She accidentally drives up on the side of the road, obliterating a potted plant; Cher is clearly an inexperienced and reckless driver. She looks back out the rear of the car biting her lip, hardly fazed by the destruction. We see a large stone house, and Cher’s best friend Dionne comes out the front door. Cher narrates in voiceover, “She’s my friend, because we both know what it’s like to have people be jealous of us.”
Dionne runs up to the car and gets in as Cher continues in voiceover. The friends share a handshake as Cher says, “Dionne and I were both named after great singers of the past who now do infomercials.” The friends go back and forth lightly making fun of each other’s fashion choices, as Cher glides through a stop sign. Dionne alerts Cher to her infraction, but Cher denies it, saying, “I totally paused!” We see hordes of teenagers walking into school as Dionne tells Cher that Murray is paging her. Cher tells Dionne that Murray is “so possessive,” and in voiceover, Cher explains that Dionne and Murray’s relationship is dramatic. “I think they’ve seen that Ike and Tina Turner movie just too many times,” she says. Cher asks Dionne, “Why do you put up with it? You could do so much better.” Murray approaches them and we see him from behind, his pants slung low as rap plays. He questions Dionne about why she hasn’t answered his pages, and she tells him, angrily, “I hate when you call me ‘woman’!” He asks her if she has been having sex behind his back, and she fires back at him, asking him how “this cheap K-Mart hair extension got into the backseat of your car.” A crowd around them gasps as the couple begins to argue. When Murray says he thinks the extension is one of Dionne’s, Dionne hits him with it and tells him she does “not wear polyester hair.” Cher excuses herself as the couple continues to fight. As Murray asks Dionne if it’s “that time of the month again,” the crowd that has formed gasps.
Walking away, we hear Cher’s inner monologue: “I don’t know why Dionne’s going out with a high school boy. They’re like dogs.” Cher walks through throngs of boys, who cut her off on skateboards, and invade her personal space. When one boy comes up beside her and puts his arm around her, she pushes him away uttering an iconic 90s expression of dismay: “Uch, as if!” In a classroom, Cher stands at a podium alongside another girl, Amber, as their teacher, Mr. Hall, describes the subject of their debate. They will be debating whether all refugees ought to be allowed into the United States, with Amber taking the anti-refugee stance and Cher taking the pro-refugee stance. Cher puts the gum she was chewing on her finger and begins discussing the issue. She explains that Haitians want to come to America, but that many Americans are concerned about the strain that would put on American resources. A shot of the classroom shows other students barely paying attention, as Cher continues. She describes a garden party that was attended by many people who didn’t RSVP, which created a difficult situation for her, having underestimated how much food they would need.
As we see students zoning out at their desks, Cher says, “By the end of the day, it was like, the more the merrier. And so, if the government could just get to the kitchen, rearrange some things, we could certainly party with the Haitians. And in conclusion, may I please remind you that it does not say RSVP on the Statue of Liberty.” Mr. Hall looks off-put by Cher’s presentation, but her classmates applaud at the invocation of the Statue of Liberty. She puts her gum back in her mouth as Mr. Hall invites Amber to respond. Amber is indignant: “Mr. Hall, how can I answer that? The topic is Haiti and she’s talking about some little party.” Cher retorts that it was her father’s “50th birthday!” and the two girls take their seats. Mr. Hall if anyone has any thoughts on Cher’s presentation, and a boy named Elton raises his hand to say that he wants to go to the quad to pick up his Cranberries CD. Mr. Hall asks if anyone else wants to comment and another boy named Travis raises his hand, and says, “The way I feel about the Rolling Stones, is the way my kids are gonna feel about Nine Inch Nails, so I really shouldn’t torment my mom anymore, huh…” Mr. Hall agrees that tolerance is a good lesson, even if Travis’s comment is not on the topic of Haiti.
Mr. Hall then distributes report cards, and asks if there is a Christian Stovitz in the class. Cher raises her hand to inform him that Christian’s parents have joint custody, and so he’s spending a semester in Chicago and a semester at their school. She adds, “I think it is a travesty on the part of the legal profession.” As Mr. Hall hands back the report cards, Travis looks at his visibly distressed, as mournful music plays. Travis then jumps up onto a shelf next to the window and tries to jump out the window as Mr. Hall grabs him and implores, “Could the suicide attempts please be postponed till the next period?” As Amber passes Cher her report card, Cher’s face falls in dismay; she realizes that Mr. Hall gave her a C in debate, and she is not happy. The school bell rings and Cher speaks to Dionne on a cellphone about her report card, telling her that she “totally choked,” and that her “father is gonna go ballistic” about it. As Dionne agrees with Cher that Mr. Hall was “way harsh,” she walks up alongside Cher and the two girls talk to each other on cell phones while standing beside each other. The girls hang up and say their goodbyes.
The shot shifts to show the exterior of Cher’s mansion, a white monstrosity with large columns. In voiceover, Cher says, “Isn’t my house classic? The columns date all the way back to 1972.” Inside, we see a painting of Cher’s mother, who Cher tells us died when Cher was a baby from a liposuction accident. She says, “I don’t remember her, but I like to pretend she still watches over me,” and holds up her report card to the painting, pointing out that she got a 98 in geometry. In a mirror, Cher applies lip gloss, but is interrupted by the sounds of the “maudlin music of the university station.” She follows the music—“Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead—into the kitchen, where she finds her stepbrother, Josh. She teases him about his collegiate grunge-y fashion styles and alternative music choices. In retaliation, he grabs her side and tells her that she is “filling out there,” but Cher retorts, “Wow, your face is catching up to your mouth.” When Josh refers to their dad, Cher assures him that Mr. Horowitz is not his dad, and that he should find his own family. Josh argues that just because his mother remarried yet again doesn’t mean that that man is Josh’s father, but Cher fires back, “Actually Kato, that’s exactly what it means.”
In the other room, Cher and Josh sit on the couch as Josh tells her that he has his own place near school. “Shouldn’t you go to school on the East Coast? I heard girls at NYU aren’t at all particular,” Cher says, and Josh laughs sarcastically. Josh changes the station from Beavis and Butthead to CNN, and Cher gets annoyed with him. “It’s considered cool to be informed about what’s going on in the world,” he says, trying to speak her language. She continues to tease him, and they are interrupted by Mr. Horowitz, who beckons them into the dining room. At the dinner table, Mr. Horowitz asks Josh if he’s given any thought to going into corporate law, and Josh responds that he is more interested in environmental law, as Cher chomps on an asparagus. “What for?” Mr. Horowitz asks, “Do you wanna have a miserable frustrating life?” He then, however, turns to Cher, and uses Josh as an example of someone who knows what he wants and attends a good college. “I’d like to see you have a little direction,” he tells her, and asks to see her report card. She tells him it’s not ready yet, and that “some teachers are trying to low-ball me!” As Josh rolls his eyes, Cher tells her father that she wants to negotiate with her teachers for better grades. Mr. Horowitz is impressed. All three of their phones ring, and they all frantically pick up, but it was Mr. Horowitz’s phone, and he begins screaming into it. Cher turns to Josh and calls him a brown-noser. Josh is offended that Cher would try and negotiate her grades, but she assures him that it is what she has done every other semester and licks her finger mockingly.
A montage begins of Cher requesting better grades. The scene shifts to a field at the high school, and we see cheerleaders practicing a routine as Cher says in voiceover, “I told my P.E. teacher that an evil male had broken my heart, so she raised my C to a B.” We see Cher tearfully talking to the P.E. teacher, who agrees that men are horrible. We then see Cher speaking to another teacher as she says, “I promised Ms. Geist I’d start a letter writing campaign to my congressman about violations to the Clean Air Act,” and the camera zooms in on a Greenpeace poster. Mr. Hall, however, does not change his mind, and we see Cher arguing with him. In voiceover, she tells us that Mr. Hall called her reports “un-researched, unstructured and unconvincing…As if!” Outside his classroom, Cher bemoans her bad luck with Mr. Hall, and decides that she needs to “find sanctuary in a place where I could gather my thoughts and regain my strength.”
The scene shifts to just that place: the mall. Inside, Dionne and Cher carry bags and Dionne asks what’s wrong with Cher, who seems to be in low spirits. Cher tells her that she still doesn’t know how to handle her bad grade, and that her efforts to convince him of her “scholastic aptitude” were “brutally rebuffed,” and Dionne tries to comfort her by telling her that Mr. Hall is miserable and likes to make other people feel miserable as a result. Donning a ridiculous hat, Cher is struck with a revelation, and decides that in order to fix her bad grade, they need to make Mr. Hall “sublimely happy,” so that he is more amenable to changing her grade.
The shot shifts to show Mr. Hall walking down a tree-lined path carrying books towards the camera. In voiceover, Cher gives “the 4-1-1 on Mr. Hall” and we learn that he is 47, single, and “earns minor ducats at a thankless job.” Cher suggests that he needs to have sex—which she refers to as a “good, healthy boink fest.” Unfortunately, she says, there is a major “babe drought” at her school, and we see a number of older women teachers who work at the school eating lunch. The “evil trolls in the math department,” Cher tells us, are surprisingly married and the P.E. teachers are lesbians. Cher finally remembers Ms. Geist, and we see her sipping coffee and reading at a table. Cher says, “Something told me not to discount Ms. Geist. The camera pans up from Ms. Geist’s feet as Cher outlines her flaws: runs in her stocking, an always visible slip, and lipstick on her teeth. As Ms. Geist gives an impassioned lecture on a political matter, Cher is lost in thought, staring at her and declaring herself Ms. Geist’s “only hope” for a makeover.
Cher writes a letter, which Dionne reads over her shoulder, holding a red rose. The letter is a flowery love poem, and Dionne asks Cher if she wrote it. “Duh! It’s like a famous quote!” says Cher. When Dionne asks where it’s from, Cher tells her, matter-of-factly, “Cliffnotes.” The girls look over to see Ms. Geist and Travis coming out of her office, and they hurry to put the love note and rose into her mailbox. They run off, and watch Ms. Geist from behind the glass. The girls grin as they watch Ms. Geist smell the rose and read the note. She is clearly charmed, and the girls squeal in delight as the shot shifts to Mr. Hall’s classroom.
Mr. Hall stands at a podium, telling a student, Paroudasm, that he has 16 tardies to work off. Hall then realizes that Travis has the most tardies in the class, which everyone cheers, as triumphant music plays, and Travis walks up to the podium. Cher looks disgusted and is writing something, as Travis says, “This is so unexpected, I don’t even have a speech prepared,” mistaking Hall’s announcement for an accolade. Travis embarks on an extensive speech, thanking everyone who has helped him be tardy, including his parents, the bus driver, “the wonderful crew at McDonald’s.” When he finishes, the class applauds, and Hall continues. He announces that Cher has been tardy twice, but Cher objects, asking to hear the exact dates of when she was late. He cites last Monday, to which Cher responds, “I was surfing the crimson wave, I had to haul ass to the Ladies’,” referring to being on her period. Recognizing that it was a women’s health issue, Hall forgives that particular tardy. Cher sees this as her opportunity and says, “Ms. Geist was right about you,” which catches Mr. Hall’s attention. “What do you mean?” he asks, and Cher tells him that Ms. Geist said that he was “the only one in the school with any intelligence.” Mr. Hall’s face spreads into a smile at this revelation.
Back at home, Cher's father calls her gruffly into his office. She comes in to find him holding the second notice for three outstanding tickets; her bad driving is catching up to her. Mr. Horowitz is angry, snatching the notice out of her hands and forbidding her from driving the car with a supervised driver with her (Dionne doesn’t count). Cher performs contrition, and assures her father that she will practice hard, before sauntering away. Next to the pool, the perfect driving supervisor, Josh, sits in all black reading Nietzsche, and Cher comes up behind him, making fun of his attempts at growing a goatee. “You don’t wanna be the last one at the coffee house without chin pubes,” she teases. Sitting beside him, Cher starts to tell him about her quandary, but he interrupts her to ask, “What are the chances of you shutting up till you get your way?” “Slim to none,” she replies, grabbing his arm and leading him towards the car.
We next see Cher driving on the wrong side of the road. Josh teases her about it, but she whines that it’s difficult to drive in platform shoes. Josh tells her he needs to go to school for a tree people meeting, and that Marky Mark is going to plant a tree on the club’s behalf. He uses, of all people, Marky Mark as an example of the importance of giving back. Cher assures him that she gives back in a number of ways, including her recent matchmaking efforts with the teachers at her school. Josh calls her bluff, however, guessing that it is for her own benefit; “If I ever saw you do anything that wasn’t 90% selfish I’d die of shock,” he says. “Oh that would be reason enough for me,” she jokes.
Amber carries a lunch tray to an outdoor table, as Cher and Dionne sit in the foreground. “Would you call me selfish?” asks Cher. “Not to your face,” Dionne comforts her, before guessing that it’s Josh who’s getting to her. Cher spots Mr. Hall and the two girls run towards him. “Do you drink coffee?” Cher asks him. When Mr. Hall tells her he never drinks the coffee at the school, she tells him that she accidentally grabbed her father’s thermos of good Italian coffee that morning and offers it to him. Mr. Hall accepts, and the girls plant the idea that maybe he could share it with Ms. Geist. The girls then go to Ms. Geist’s classroom. When she asks them if they signed up for the environmental fair, they assure her that they did before pulling the tie out of her hair, taking her glasses off, and picking at her clothes in an attempt to give her a quick makeover. Flustered, she leaves, again urging the girls to sign up for the environmental fair.
Outside, Cher and Dionne walk to P.E. as Cher lists what she’s eaten that day, referring to herself as a “heifer.” Dionne gasps when she sees Mr. Hall approaching Ms. Geist on a bench. The two teachers sit beside one another and Cher points out that they are both crossing their legs towards one another, a sign of mutual attraction. As Mr. Hall gets Ms. Geist’s number, Dionne and Cher gush about how sweet “old people” can be.
The opening sequence orients the viewer in a world of materialism and fast-paced Beverly Hills youth culture. We see close-ups of clothes, shopping bags, white teeth, swimming pools, fancy cars shot from above, and giggling teenage girl groups. The camera jumps are frenetic and the viewer darts around between place and time, much like the pace of the teenagers’ lives that the sequence depicts. The upbeat song “Kids in America” suggests a world in which kids rule, a utopian vision of kids with driver’s licenses and credit cards, allowed to do what they want and have fun. Cher alludes to the playful and upbeat images of the opening with her opening line—“So, ok, you’re probably going: ‘Is this a Noxzema commercial or what?” Her sarcastic self-awareness about the shots in the film itself show us that not only is the film upbeat and feel-good, but also witty and self-aware.
From the start we are aligned with Cher, who is a conspiratorial and playful narrator, if extremely detached from reality. The tone of her voiceover is that of a best friend, of a valley girl who wants to let the viewer in on her secrets. Cher is at once observant, savvy and completely out of touch. The main way that Cher is out of touch is in her lack of awareness about her own privilege. A comic moment occurs when she talks about how she’s just like any other teenager, before opening up a giant closet and using a computer program to help her pick out clothes. Later, she appears completely oblivious to how awful of a driver she is, and when she explains that Dionne is her friend because they “both know what it’s like to have people be jealous of [them],” we wonder just how superficial Cher Horowitz is.
It turns out, Cher is pretty superficial. Her superficiality, in fact, is one of her defining characteristics, and she seems to have no shame about it. She gossips, compares her black best friends’ relationship to Ike and Tina Turner’s abusive one, judges people based on their fashion choices, and chews gum during a class presentation in which she compares Haitian refugees to guests at a garden party she threw for her father. Her superficiality, however, belies a deeper power of observation and discernment. She resists the invasive aggression of the high school boys who prey on her, is good at standing up for herself, and her classwork, while ditzy, takes a big-picture approach that convincingly ends up on a humanistic and ethical end of the political spectrum. While her interests might veer towards the materialistic, and she is grossly misinformed, she has rhetorical enthusiasm. Cher might be a pretty, fashion-conscious ditz, with a limited self-awareness, but in the end, she is determined to fight the good fight.
A class debate in a teen film is a glib forum in which to talk about global politics and human rights issues. The scene serves the narrative purpose of showing Cher’s powers of persuasion and her leadership qualities. Much of the humor of the scene rests on the fact that Cher is making an analogy between the issues faced by Haitian refugees and the RSVP situation for a garden party she once threw for her father—it is a laughably out-of-touch analogy. Yet again, Cher is dangerously un-self-aware, seeking to compare her own privileged position to those of desperate refugees. However, at the end of the argument, she convinces the entire class of her point of view, and is met with applause for her rhetorical verve. Cher is good at getting people to see things her way, and knows how to influence her social sphere.
Standing in stark contrast to Cher’s under-informed political opinions and superficiality is Josh, her liberal, Amnesty International t-shirted, Radiohead-listening, CNN-watching step brother. The two are presented as completely incompatible; where Cher wants to participate in popular culture, go shopping, and impose her shallow point of view on their interaction, Josh is a bleeding-heart college liberal, an earnest student of philosophy, politics, and environmentalism. He wants to watch the news and have a substantive conversation, and he rolls his eyes at Cher's focus on only the superficial "social" aspects of world events. While Cher cannot see the dissonance in comparing a refugee crisis to a garden party, Josh is committed to staying informed and seeing the news for what it is. He takes the world seriously, where Cher sees it as a playground. In this way, he begins to cause Cher to question her own sense of ethics, and makes her wonder if she actually is selfish like he says.
The movie is glib, campy, and light-hearted in tone throughout, lending it a satirical quality. Darker issues are treated as jokes throughout. When Travis gets a bad report card, he attempts to jump out the window, only to be held back by the teacher. When Cher talks about the death of her mother, she does it with a sing-song tone, and elaborates that it took place during a botched liposuction appointment. This anecdote is expositional, but it is also played for laughs. The film takes nothing seriously, and wants to make light of even the most serious topics. We are meant to identify with the narrator and protagonist Cher, but she is constantly out-doing her own ditziness, ignorance, and shallowness. Thus, the film wants its audience to genuinely identify with the subject matter, while also maintaining a detached irony in relation to it.