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Two Stereotypes in One

Viral (2016) Starring Sofia Black-D'Elia and Analeigh Tipton. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. Written by Barbara Marshall and Christopher Landon.

Most films portray teenaged protagonists as one of two stereotypes:

  1. The non-threatening, hard-studying parent-pleaser. These films are made by adults for adults. Even when ostensibly aimed at youth, these films pander first to parents by offering "good role models" parents will want their children to see. The wants of a young audience come afterward. Ugh.
  2. The crude, sex-obsessed, hard-partying parent-nightmare. Sometimes these films are aimed at adults who want to tsk-tsk about how terrible the kids are today. More commonly, though, when the teenager is the protagonist and not just a minor character, these films are aimed at youth and are made by filmmakers struggling to distance themselves from the films in Category A. "Don't worry, kids, I'm cool," the filmmakers seem to say. "This isn't a film for your parents to make you watch. This is a film for YOU. I know you're not a straight-A goody-two-shoes. You're an empty-headed bag of hormones. I get you!" Ugh.

John Hughes achieved greatness specifically because he was able to go deeper than these shallow stereotypes and create fleshed-out, complex young characters. A few other filmmakers have done likewise. But most filmmakers still see teenagers "in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions."

Viral (2016)

Viral sticks to the traditional stereotypes. What makes it interesting, though, is that it centers around two sisters: one from Category A and one from Category B. And the film is sympathetic to both. The sex-obsessed older sister (Analeigh Tipton) isn't there to be punished for her wild ways and learn a valuable lesson, nor is the shy and studious younger sister (Sofia Black-D'Elia ) there to be ridiculed as a goody-two-shoes or to make the older sister look cool by comparison. We're asked to sympathize with both.

Artistically, this gives the film some freshness and even moments that are shocking in how they break the mold. In one scene, Black-D'Elia sits in the back of a car beside a classmate she has a crush on, but she's too shy to express her interest. From the front seat, Tipton discretely texts her, "Grab his coçk, or I'll tell him you're in love with him!" A wholesome, giggly girl, terrified of being outed for her attraction to a guy — in a scene with crude language and suggestions that show no interest in pandering to parents. This film is breaking rules.

Viral isn't pitting "the good kids" against "the bad kids," but directing sympathy toward all. And that, more than anything else, is what makes Viral something special. Most writers love showing young people divided against each other, brother against sister, classmate against classmate. Most fictional youth spend far more time combating other youth than combating the adults who push them around. The message our culture tells young people again and again is, "You're not allowed to stand up to adults, so take out your frustrations on other youth. If you don't like being locked up in a school and pushed around by the adults, then take it out on your fellow victims."

Even The Breakfast Club, though it ended on an iconic note of unity among the teenagers, only got there after more than an hour of teenagers threatening, harassing, and humiliating one another while mostly tolerating abuse from their teacher.

Viral starts off by feinting in the traditional direction of division. It opens with Black-D'Elia, and then introduces us to her sister by having Black-D'Elia's cell phone go off with the screen telling her the caller is "Lucifer," a name she's apparently given to her sister. But this is either a fake-out or a bow to the unspoken youth-against-youth rule that Viral is about to subvert.

Whatever tensions may exist between these sisters, they spend most of the film helping each other, even before the zombie contagion forces them to. Black-D'Elia leaves class to bring Tipton needed tampons. And when Tipton finds Black-D'Elia crushing on a classmate but too shy to act, the afore mentioned text is only one action Tipton takes to push her sister forward in the relationship.

When the zombie contagion breaks out, these sisters are on their own. Their father finds himself locked out of the quarantine area while the sisters are locked in. This gives the teenagers a chance to be self-reliant heroes, and it is here that the age-politics of this film reach their extremes, both good and bad.

Here come the spoilers.

The film hits its most embarrassingly ageist moment with a scene where Tipton drags her sister to a party that other teenagers in the quarantine area are having, despite military patrols enforcing a curfew to prevent people from spreading the zombie-making virus to one another. We're never told why these teenagers endanger their lives to have a party. We're just supposed to accept that teenagers will do such things.

But if that seems insulting, the film makes up for it later when Tipton catches the virus. While the adults show little ability to deal with the virus beyond killing victims before they can spread it, Black-D'Elia determinedly figures out a way to help her sister.

Sisters protect each other in Viral.
Sisters have each other's back.
Far from being the bitter enemies we may have first expected, these two sisters sacrifice for one another. When the military evacuates the quarantine zone, Black-D'Elia refuses to go to safety for fear of what will happen to Tipton if she does. And in a conversation between the sisters, we learn this is has always been the nature of their relationship. As Black-D'Elia says, "That's what we do: we protect each other."

Later, when Tipton finds she's becoming a zombie and will eventually be made to kill Black-D'Elia, Timpton urges, "Kill me." Such noble sacrifice can be a cliché in films, but it's a cliché of adult characters. Youth are almost never portrayed as noble or self-sacrificing, and here it doesn't seem awkward or out-of-character. The teenaged sisters are fiercely loyal to each other.

And let's not gloss over the triumph of a teenager applying scientific knowledge to pull the parasite from her sister. In most thrillers, teenagers don't save the day by figuring out anything. If they have a good moment, it's usually because a smart adult told them what to do. Viral has a touch of that problem itself, as we see Black-D'Elia draw inspiration from something her biologist father told her. But Black-D'Elia does a lot of the thinking on her own, and the film deserves credit for giving its young heroine some credit.

Though Timpton doesn't make it, Black-D'Elia and her love interest use their wits to survive the zombie contagion and to survive the government's attempt to wipe out those in the quarantine zone. In the end, these two teenagers are headed on a trip across a few states to meet up with Black-D'Elia's dad, and it's a happy ending because we never doubt they will make it. They're competent heroes, and that is something for which young audiences must be grateful.