'The To Do List,' teen sex comedy done by a woman

Aubrey Plaza (left) and Rachel Bilson in "The To Do List."
Aubrey Plaza (left) and Rachel Bilson in "The To Do List." (BONNIE OSBORNE)
Posted: July 26, 2013

A throwback comedy with millennial flavor, The To Do List is an improbably entertaining, R-rated raunchfest - and a milestone of sorts. It shows how far the teenage sex comedy has come, and how different it looks when a female writer or director is behind the camera.

The film marks the feature-film debut of writer/director Maggie Carey, who delivers sexual slapstick most typically seen in movies about male initiation. It stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy, a nerdy high school graduate who systematically conducts field research into the 57 varieties of sexual experience. "There are so many 'jobs' here!" she notes of the terms she sets out to master and stores in her Trapper Keeper, it being 1993.

Considering how sexually active teenage girls are usually represented in movies, what's most surprising about The To Do List is what it is not.

Most of all, it's not a metaphor - like the prom in John Hughes movies - for What Intercourse Represents. It is not an unplanned-pregnancy rom-com like Juno. It is not a purveyor of centerfold nudity like Spring Breakers. It is not a cautionary tale of repression like The Virgin Suicides. It is not an idealized portrait of the first time like The Notebook.

Given this context, The To Do List's depiction of a bumbling brainiac stumbling onto the realization that sex is many things and that one of them is pleasure seems almost radical. And for that perspective, Carey stands on the shoulders of the women filmmakers who preceded her.

Before female screenwriters and directors got in on the action in the 1980s, teen sex comedies were largely a gendered affair. The ones starring and marketed to boys were about getting it; the ones starring and marketed to girls about saving it. The message was: Good girls didn't.

Then along came Kimi Peck ( Little Darlings, 1980), Amy Heckerling ( Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982), and Eleanor Bergstein ( Dirty Dancing, 1987). In their refreshingly nonjudgmental movies, good girls did. The focus was not on the losing of virginity but rather on the getting of wisdom. The characters in these films found that sex was sometimes just sex and at other times it was tangled up in emotions, romance, and love.

Although as archetypes the teen virgin and the slut have had currency since the 1980s, it's rare in a movie from a female filmmaker to define a teenage girl by her sexual experience - or lack of it.

For the most part in movies by women, there were girls who did and girls who didn't and sometimes they were fast friends - as in Heckerling's Fast Times and Clueless (1995). In the latter, when the sexually experienced Dionne (Stacey Dash) teases best friend Cher (Alicia Silverstone) for being a virgin, Cher explains that she has high standards: "You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet."

And if there was a line drawn between girls who did and those who didn't, it sounded something like the conversation between Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) in Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball (2000). When Monica puts down a girl who has sent a come-on letter to Quincy, he asks why Monica would brand said girl with the H-word. Monica responds, "She's a ho because she's sending her coochie through the mail! She's not saying, 'You're a nice guy, and I want to get to know you.' She's saying, 'I wanna [have sex].' " A distinction worth making.

Female filmmakers don't have the monopoly on these more nuanced depictions of teen intercourse - see Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985) or Cameron Crowe's Say Anything (1989). But the films from femme helmers and screenwriters are formative for the teenage girls watching them because they are less likely to have slut-shaming and more likely to have girls as the leads rather than as supporting players.

And the ones from female filmmakers address peer pressures and confusions that boys may not experience in the same way. In 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), an update of The Taming of the Shrew, screenwriters Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah provide a reason for the combative behavior of the title figure, Kat (Julia Stiles).

The prickly, feminist-theory-reading, combat-boots-wearing high school senior is a social outcast, made fun of by the boys, especially one now coming on to her sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), a ninth grader. Kat explains to Bianca that the same boy pressured her into a sexual relationship. "He said everyone was doing it. So I did it . . . but I didn't want to anymore. I wasn't ready. So he broke up with me." Shamed, if not ashamed, Kat models self-respect refreshing for a teen sex comedy.

In 10 Things, Kat and Bianca's father is a gynecologist who warns the girls about unprotected sex. Similarly, in The To Do List, Brandy's mother (Connie Britton), a nurse, provides practical information and shares her values, which are less strict than those of Brandy's father (Clark Gregg).

As in many films about sexual coming-of-age, much of the humor in The To Do List strikes a nerve in parents who still imagine their offspring as presexual. As the mother of a teenage daughter, much of the film's language and sexual candor had me reaching for the smelling salts. But I didn't need them to be revived by the film's takeaway - "Sex is a Big Deal, but not always a big deal."


Movie

The To Do List

Opens Friday in area theaters


Contact Carrie Rickey at carriedrickey@gmail.com. Follow her at www.carrierickey.com.

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