Apparently the marketing for Maggie Carey's film The To Do List must be pretty bad, because whenever I tell someone what a good movie it is, they usually respond by saying that they had already written the film off as another dumb, juvenile teen sex comedy. Though I guess it's not hard to understand why, since The To Do List has a pretty standard teen-sex-comedy premise -- to avoid the embarrassment of sexual inexperience, a recent high school graduate makes a checklist of sexual exploits to be completed before freshman orientation. But The To Do List distinguishes itself immediately by not making this recent graduate a standard sex-crazed boy, but Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), the class valedictorian and a Hilary Clinton feminist driven not by raging hormones, but her own unrelenting ambitions. Add an overachieving supporting cast (anchored by Bill Hader in a performance deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination), some honest and awkward humor, and the fact that The To Do List is more entertaining than would-be blockbusters with budgets hundreds of times larger, and you have a wonderfully scrappy, unique gem worth rooting for. Watch my ReThink Review of The To Do List below (transcript following).
The teen sex comedy is usually a male-dominated genre, focusing on the misadventures of horny boys trying desperately to lose their virginity or sleep with that perfect girl, thus completing their transition to manhood. It's a genre that had its heyday in the '80s with films like Porky's, though it made a comeback in 1999 with the hit American Pie, reminding studios that teen sex comedies are both cheap to make with the potential for wild profitability. The To Do List, written and directed by Maggie Carey, fits the genre's formula, following a high school graduate trying to complete a checklist of sexual accomplishments the summer before starting college. But by making that teenager a geeky girl and infusing the film with a modern comedic sensibility born from the exploding sketch and improv scenes, The To Do List provides a fresh take on the teen sex comedy and is, in my mind, the summer's best comedy.
Set in Boise, Idaho in 1993, The To Do List stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, the uptight valedictorian of her high school who publishes her own feminist magazine and idolizes Hillary Clinton. But as her overachieving high school career comes to an end, Brandy's best friends (played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) point out that she's ignored a core subject: sex.
After Brandy's dimmer but more sexually experienced older sister (played by Rachel Bilson) tells Brandy that sex will definitely be on her freshman curriculum, Brandy, ever the diligent student, decides to give herself a crash course in human sexuality, creating a comprehensive to do list of sexual activities she barely understands but vows to complete with whoever will comply before freshman orientation, hopefully ending by bedding the local guitar-playing hunk, Rusty Waters (played by Scott Porter).
Brandy works with Rusty at the local swimming pool, alongside their slacker boss Willy (played by Bill Hader), a fellow graduate named Derrick (played by Donald Glover), and Brandy's puppy-faced study buddy Cameron (played by Johnny Simmons) who's trying to win her heart. Clark Gregg is Brandy's strict, Rush Limbaugh-loving dad, while Connie Britton plays her mom, a nurse who understands the value of responsible sex education. Andy Samberg plays a rocker riding the grunge wave and Christopher Mintz-Plasse plays Cameron's buddy, Duffy.
One of the ways The To Do List and its hero diverges wonderfully from the ilk of its genre is that Brandy's desire for sexual experience isn't driven by raging hormones, frustration, or even pleasure. Instead, Brandy's interest in sex is purely academic. It's a required subject she somehow forgot to take, and failing to complete her list means potentially jeopardizing her spot at the top of her class, an unacceptable notion for a compulsive overachiever who will settle for nothing less than becoming the world's most powerful woman.
Where the protagonist's dilemma in most teen sex comedies is not getting enough sex, Brandy's problem in The To Do List quickly becomes getting too much of it while remaining oblivious to the varying levels of emotion people assign to physical intimacy. Whether it's someone like Cameron who equates sex with love or Rusty who can't connect them, Brandy simply doesn't care. The adults in her life can't seem to provide much guidance -- Brandy's father's conservative beliefs means the entire topic of sex is verboten, preferring to keep his head in the sand about even his wife's sexual history, while she seems more focused on sex's clinical realities. Willy's lack of responsibility makes him somewhat of a child himself, leaving him baffled by his instincts to protect Brandy from something he isn't even against. In a better world, Hader would receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his clever and consistently hilarious performance.
"Consistently hilarious" is also a great way to describe The To Do List, which provides more delight with its shoestring $1.5 million budget than many studio tentpoles did with soaring nine-digit price tags, while masterfully and honestly walking the line of whether sex should mean everything or nothing. It's a wonderfully sweet film that's explicit in its language but tame with its visuals, that ultimately isn't about transitioning to adulthood, but about teenagers embracing the sexual follies of youth and the stories they'll one day tell.
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