DEBS (which stands for Discipline, Energy, Beauty and Strength) is a top-notch organization of schoolgirl secret agents whose elite members are carefully selected through subliminal questions on the SATs. Amy (Sara Foster) is the “perfect score” who secretly longs to go to art school and has just broken up with her equally all-American boyfriend. Janet (Jill Ritchie) is the kooky yet sympathetic novice longing to earn her stripes and prove herself. Dominique (model Devon Aoki) is the stereotypical slutty and cold French exchange student who has no good lines. And Max (Meagan Good) is the fiery, committed and ambitious leader of their squad.
After an awkward and erotically charged standoff with legendary supervillain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), Amy falls for her archnemesis and questions her loyalty to the DEBS.
Watching DEBS, Angela Robinson’s first feature, I couldn’t help but think of that other gang of crime-fighting schoolgirls: Craig McCracken’s The Powerpuff Girls. Both derive their clever humour from melding girliness and femmitude with death-defying stunts and violent action. For example, the potentially clichéd montage scene of Lucy and Amy falling in love is given a breath of fresh air by showing the lovers romantically sharing an ice-cream soda one minute and amorously firing a rocket launcher the next.
The film focusses on gossip, taupe cardigans and dating as much as on Uzis, stakeouts and destroying Australia, thereby queering and femming the action/spy/superhero genres. It even subverts parodies of those genres, like Mike Meyers’ masculinity-as-drag Austin Powers series. Whether it is receiving their mission briefing through holographic projection while chowing down in a greasy diner or the fact that all of the bad guys look like grungy hipsters and soft-Goth punks, DEBS wears its everydayness on its sleeve and drags the pyrotechnics into a familiar world with which we can identify.
The results are often hilarious: A personal favourite is when Lucy meets with a bombshell Russian assassin (named Ninotchka in a cute dyke-icon cinematic reference) they are not planning global domination but are simply on a first date. And like mere mortals, these criminal masterminds must endure that tedious small talk: “So… you’re an assassin. How’s that work?”
Meanwhile Lucy’s slacker henchman Scud interprets her schemes to take over the world as simply the desperate acts of someone trying to get over being dumped by a girlfriend. Amy has a similar idea for her term paper on Lucy for a class called “Capes And Capers: Gender Reconstruction And The Criminal Mastermind.”
For a film that is premised on the sexiness of supermodels with guns and on self-conscious genre references, DEBS offers a lot of surprises and some sparking dialogue. Holland Taylor steals the show as the tough schoolmarm Mrs Peatree in a scene where Amy is rewarded for her bravery in “confronting” Lucy.
And you can’t help but detect some political critique in the way Amy’s divided loyalties are represented: Caught between her friends – the hetero “homeland security” – and her queer love for dangerous anarchist Lucy, the film’s slogan might as well be, “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists.”
While some viewers will be disappointed that the feature doesn’t live up to the promise of Robinson’s original short version of DEBS from 2003, this occasionally saccharine hot-girl romance cum wacky fantasy-world totally wins you over by the end.