Olivia (Madelaine Petsch) has her heart set on going to Stanford University. She’s a senior at a private high school, captain of the debate team, and plans every move down to the minute. His devotion to schoolwork and his obsession with Stanford are partly due to the recent suicide of his best friend Jane (Chloe Yu). Her mental well-being is further impacted by the news that Stanford has postponed her. Olivia’s panic attacks spiral out of control, with frightening consequences.
Although Petsch doesn’t look like she belongs in high school anymore, she has a full understanding of the pain of being a teenager. Maybe it’s because of her years as fan-favorite Cheryl Blossom on Riverdale that Petsch is so easily able to deal with high school drama. It’s more than just a teenage mood that Petsch channels into Olivia. She is able to describe how everything feels when you are young. Grades, college acceptances, and the loss of friends seem like the end of the world, but in reality, it’s just the beginning for young people.
Joan attempts to add a thriller angle to the story of an ambitious high school girl giving in to dark impulses to achieve her goals. While Jane dies early in the film, she appears throughout the film as a ghost following Olivia. These chilling 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 too long, Jane is simply an looming presence that exacerbates Olivia’s poor mental health. This should create some tension, given Olivia and Jane’s closeness, but the public knows nothing of their friendship and doesn’t understand why these appearances are so frightening for Olivia. It seems there is something deeper than Olivia dealing with the loss of her friend. Given how quickly Olivia turns to underhanded schemes in a desperate plea to harm the people she deems responsible for her deferment at Stanford, it wouldn’t have been surprising to learn that Jane’s death was not by his own hand. Of course, that’s not the case, but something is missing from the description of the friendship between Olivia and Jane. Something to explain Jane’s frequent sightings as Olivia’s decisions grow increasingly dangerous.
While Olivia is a hugely ambitious student, her efforts to earn her “rightful” place in the hallowed halls of Stanford are nothing like her. There are ruthless academic motivations, and then there are murders. Joan wants the audience to believe that there is only a thin line between the two and that it would be easy to follow a deadly path to success. While that might be true for other movies and characters, that’s just not the case for this movie or Olivia.
There are a multitude of ideas at work in Joan, including the societal pressures of attending a good college, teen mental health, 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 excessive use of these platforms can have negative effects on the user’s mental health. It is this surface level that Joan works on. The film goes no further than the simple idea that social media and high expectations can send someone on a downward spiral.
This movie is also oddly flippant about Jane’s suicide. The public knows nothing about her except that she was friends with Izzy and Olivia and was depressed. His 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 removed from the film entirely. Having a teenage character commit suicide during the opening moments of a movie, and then only vaguely alluding to teenage suicide and depression, seems careless.
Joan is a great showcase for Petsch and the future that awaits it when Riverdale ends next year. While the script has a few holes that make the plot too difficult to fully enjoy, Petsch is a powerhouse whose career will be exciting to follow.