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Melanie Martinez's K-12 Is a Spellbinding Film About Breaking Free from Society

Scenes from Nurse’s Office.
Image: Atlantic

When you listen to Melanie Martinez’s K-12, the album’s themes about bullying, insecurity, and the importance of learning to embrace one’s imperfections are all readily apparent. But when you watch the accompanying K-12 film and visually drink in the story Martinez has created, it becomes a much more powerful fairytale about the lives we lead long after leaving school.

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K-12—a series of 13 videos written and directed by Martinez—re-introduces you to Crybaby, the eponymous hero from Martinez’s debut album, a girl living in a reality that feels like a warped blend between But I’m a Cheerleader and Booksmart with the essence of The Craft woven throughout. Because Crybaby’s absentee mother struggles with substance abuse, she’s there’s no one to see her off as she leaves the house to catch the bus to the K-12 Sleepaway School—a twisted, and supernatural academy where students are taught to adhere to strict, gendered roles.

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Like some of K-12's other pupils, Crybaby possesses a number of magical talents that tend to manifest in moments when she’s stressed. But because she and her good friend Angelita are the only people who seem willing to purposefully use their powers, their peers ostracize them and do everything they can to make the girls feel as if they’re don’t belong.

Individually, each of K-12's 13 musical scenes works to accompany the album’s tracks, but they’re strung together to create one cohesive narrative illustrating how people’s earliest emotional and physical traumas can become baggage they go on to carry years after the inciting incident. “Wheels on the Bus” establishes what everyday life is like for Crybaby and she and Angelita are bullied in clear sight of the bus driver, but it also emphasizes that as bad as the teasing itself is, the fact that the bus driver is both aware of what’s going on and more concerned with ogling the girls’ bodies reflects a much larger danger facing them.

What’s interesting about K-12's ideas about power is how its younger characters’ dynamics drastically shift as they arrive at their school and begin interacting with teachers and other authority figures. The issues Crybaby has with the group of popular mean girls don’t disappear once they settle into their class, but they’re superseded by more complicated problems like the ways that K-12's faculty beat students or send them off to be drugged and mentally reprogrammed.

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The nature of Crybaby’s magic is never really explained, but it feels very much like an organic part of K-12's world, in large part because of the dreamlike way that things are presented. When Crybaby’s caught levitating and using her pigtails to choke a bully who threatened to kill her, both girls are dragged to the principal’s office where Crybaby’s able to clairvoyantly witness a meeting in which the principal humiliates and fires Ms. Harper, a teacher in the process of transitioning. By going a step further and pushing her consciousness into the principal’s mind, Crybaby’s able to make her case to him (in front of a jury of wigged men) that he’s actively hurting the people he’s meant to support with the power he’s been given.

Throughout the film, Crybaby makes a number of attempts to implore those around her that they don’t have to live in constant fear and pain if only they’d choose not to participate in the system as it’s established. While most people rebuff her efforts, they’re not for nothing, because gradually Crybaby comes across others who can use their magic at will and understand that the change she wants to fight for can become a reality

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Just as K-12 begins to feel as if its story is coming together into more of a straight line, it takes a few moments to slow down and remind you of how difficult a task tearing down an institutional system truly is. For all of the allies that Crybaby makes along the way, the more she moves toward her goal, the more fraught and complicated things become, and at times, her own resolve wavers. As you fall deeper and deeper into K-12's psychedelic rabbit hole, the film increasingly shifts into an Alice in Wonderland-esque nightmare space, but the ending it builds to is something far more fascinating than Crybaby simply waking up and realizing it was all a dream. Rather, K-12 lands on the idea that fighting to free one’s self is both a worthwhile endeavor and a process that might not end exactly when you believe it will.

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[Editor’s Note: We appreciate our commenters bringing the allegations against Martinez from a few years ago to our attention. We were unfortunately not aware of this before publishing and take these topics very seriously. We promise to do more thorough research next time. -Jill P.]


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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

twesterms_2nd
twesterms 2nd

I’m not going to lie, I watched this last year and I really wanted to like it, but it was probably one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a long time. It’s probably part I ended up just hating her music and every song sounds exactly the same, but the other part is it was just a plain bad movie.