“A teenage private eye. Trust me, I know how dumb that sounds.” Thus begins Veronica Mars (2014), showcasing the sharp combination of silliness and self-awareness that made the original TV series such a winning proposition. Almost seven years on from the third season finale, the film now arrives on DVD following a tidal wave of industry hullabaloo (with a premiere at SXSW) thanks to a pioneering, high profile Kickstarter campaign that raised the $6 million budget directly from fans. In this brave new financing world, however, questions have inevitably been raised about the artistic viability and ethical obligations of a film paid for by a demographic with no monetary stake in its success.
Veronica Mars writer and director Rob Thomas’ principal achievement here is in dispelling any preoccupations viewers may have with his film’s funding model within minutes. The picture replicates the froth and flair of the TV series beautifully, remaining faithful, but never shackled to its televisual source. The story sees the titular teen private eye (Kristen Bell) returning to her fictional hometown of Neptune, California to help out an old friend (Jason Dohring) who’s been implicated in the murder of pop star and former classmate Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella). Though there’s a prestigious job at a corporate law firm waiting for her back in New York, Veronica finds herself inadvertently drawn back into the ceaseless melodrama of Neptune and its fascinating array of newsworthy inhabitants.
Veronica Mars’ mystery-of-the-week structure is inherently well-suited to the feature film treatment, and Thomas effectively replicates it wholesale. Meanwhile, cinematographer Ben Kutchins ditches the more stylistically gauche elements of the series – the colour filter has mercifully disappeared – and shoots in scope, with a sleek, moody aesthetic. The comic book quaintness remains firmly intact, with only cursory concessions given to the advancing age of the characters. There is an abundance of spiky wit pulsating through the familiar soap opera histrionics; Thomas and his skilled cast make it coalesce with just the right degree of flippancy. While the season often skirted along the edges of postmodernism, the film lets loose with a couple of smart meta flourishes.
For all its retro teen capering, Veronica Mars always had its finger on the pulse of popular culture, and the film is at its best when it engages with the zeitgeist on its own terms. Thomas also manages to squeeze in a bitchy nod to Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a show to which Veronica Mars was often compared, even though it arguably never quite scaled the same boundary-pushing heights. Whilst Neptune remains a purgatorial suburban nightmare populated by the soulless teenagers of Steely Dan’s Showbiz Kids, it remains a peculiar nucleus for Veronica. The multi-layered final act is an intelligent exercise on this very notion – the gravitational pull of the familiar is irresistible. Thomas and Bell recognise that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.