Jessica Rothe’s Tree Gelbman: The coolest girl in horror

Happy Death Day 2U hits theaters in time for Valentines Day and Jessica Rothe is back as sassy Tree Gelbman. Of course, like any good sequel, the ante is upped. Now, everyone is reliving each day and solving the murder. Also, it’s okay if you missed the first one. Even the trailers give away the twist of the original and literally run down the story. So if you’re new to the series, you can still enjoy it.

Including Jessica Rothe herself. She returns the new face of female horror protagonist. Taking the idea of final girl and creating a new, more evolved version for our time. Someone more anti hero than final girl. And one of the most badass females in horror.

jessica rothe, tree gelbman, happy death day, happy death day 2u
credit: IMDB Photo Gallery

Here’s why Jessica Rothe’s Tree Gelbman might be the best final girl ever. A new kind of female anti hero in horror.

In 2017 the world introduced us to Tree Gelbman who in a horror filled version of Groundhogs Day, awakes to the same horrifying day (her birthday) on repeat. One where she’s getting murdered. Each day, she must defend herself and try to uncover her killer. Happy Death Day made over 125 million and was a runaway hit. It highlighted Rothe’s brilliant performance of a next level final girl, paving the way for a sequel.

Rothe has done a few things since Happy Death Day. Yet her performance in the horror movie left an indelible impression. A final girl who (like Groundhog Day) begins selfish, superficial and mostly oblivious. Bill Murray relived each day until he learned how to be a good guy. He’s rewarded in the end. For Tree, the habitual day is more brutal. Most female film protagonists fight someone once, or over the course of a day or night. Tree has to fight every day until morphing into her truer self.

Part of what makes Tree Gelbman such a brilliant final girl is her sardonic nature. She’s a carefree, independent college girl who doesn’t follow typical final girl rules. She doesn’t fit the mold of our favorite horror heroine either. She’s more antihero and a new face for an updated final girl.

In Happy Death Day, we’re introduced to a sorority girl who is careless and mean. While making a list of people who could hurt her, she even realizes, ‘wow, I’m an awful person’. Yet we still wind up caring about what happens to Tree. Even eventually routing for her success.

It’s hard to imagine siding with the typical mean girl, but it feels natural here.

Mainly because Rothe plays the role with refreshing wit and the perfect amount of edginess mixed with empathy. Something not every female antihero in horror possesses. And she does it with humor, and style.

Style which also evolves. First, her rough edges are illustrated with leather pants and stiletto heels. As she faces habitual death, both her personality, and her style ease up. In the midst of chaos, she wears a Dumpstaphunk baseball tee. Later, a cute but relaxed mustard colored ringer tee. It’s mostly inconsequential, but all plays a part in helping us understand and root for Tree.

Despite her shortcomings, there’s also something fresh and real about a film heroine not being so nice or goody two shoes, like a Laurie Strode. Or deeply damaged and introspective, like Sydney Prescott. (Although Tree also lost her mom. We get a few clues about that relationship, but they never really lead anywhere. A hint that this topic could return in the sequel.)

She also doesn’t have romantic entanglements. No pressure to lose her virginity like those other final girls mentioned. Or to get it on like Alice from Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and 5, or It Follow’s Jay. Tree does have chemistry with her male counter part, Connor. She wound up with him the night before, and now starts every day in his dorm room. He starts a stranger becomes a friend, and eventually, a love interest.

Just like in real life, it takes time. This gives Tree more credibility as a real person, increasing her likability.

It’s a testament to the actress herself. She plays Tree’s metamorphosis from mean girl, to survivor, to good person with unflinching believability. Not to mention comedy chops. Turns out, she has a knack for comedic timing. Something that doesn’t always come naturally to women in horror movies. At least historically that is.

In the end, any great female hero, anti hero, or protagonist is defined by our ability to connect with them. As Rothe herself said while discussing the film ”Tree gets to grow up and in essence go from being this narcissistic sorority girl to this kind of heroine.” She successfully gets us to root for her, and leave us wanting to see more. Those are the marks of a character that will pave her way in horror history. Maybe even inspire a few women along the way.

What do you think of Tree Gelbman? Who is your favorite female anti hero or protagonist in horror?

Happy Death Day 2U is now out in theaters.


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