Easy A (2010)

There has been such a great wealth of teen-girl-POV sex comedies in recent years that it’s easy to take the genre’s gender-flipped resurgence for granted.  Titles like Blockers, Booksmart, Plan B, and Never Have I Ever have successfully de-Porkys‘d the high school sex romp entirely, to the point where the 80s straight-boy fantasies of yore are more of a distant memory than a ripe target for feminist satire.  It took years to ramp up to this new, de-jocked normal, though, and it’s easy to lose perspective on how far the genre’s default POV has come.  When The To Do List attempted to give teen girls’ libidos a spin at the wheel for a change in 2013, it got away with it by casting fully-grown adults in the teen roles and setting its horny hijinks decades in the past, filtering its transgression through an ironic remove.  In 2022, the Hulu series Sex Appeal borrows The To Do List‘s exact premise wholesale (in which an uptight honors student applies her academic work ethic to learning how to be good at sex) without having to soften its post-Porky’s hook.  The genre has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, especially considering how long mainstream comedies were specifically about boys’ quests to shed their virginities in opposition to the demure deflections of their female classmates.

2010’s Easy A might even be a clearer benchmark for the genre’s recent progress than The To Do List, since it’s a teen-girl sex comedy about its heroine not having sex.  Emma Stone stars as a precocious high school senior whose self-serving lie about losing her virginity to a college student spirals out of control, falsely labeling her as The School Slut.  As an early prototype for a Blockers-style revisionist sex comedy, it is embarrassingly restricted by how much sexual desire “good girls” were allowed to express onscreen in its time.  Our heroine has no interest in participating in the sexual adventures her peers imagine her to be indulging.  When a friend gifts her a vibrator as a thank-you present it’s played as a cheeky joke.  Of course, she wouldn’t use one of those.  She’s a good girl.  Easy A is set in a bizarre fantasy world where California high school students are having so little sex that it becomes the talk of the town when a senior loses her virginity (except don’t worry, she didn’t, really).  It makes a semi-progressive moral stance against slut-shaming gossip, but to get there it has to pretend that smart, well-mannered teen girls don’t actually want to have sex.  That’s still reserved for the realm of mouth-breathing boys (such as the leads of 2007’s Superbad, Emma Stone’s professional breakout).

Contemporary timidness about teen girls’ libidos aside, Easy A is cute.  If you haven’t noticed in her star-making decade that followed, Emma Stone is a charismatic, easily loveable performer who has no trouble commanding the spotlight.  Here, she’s saddled with a near-unbearable overload of voice-over narration—delivered directly to camera via a late-aughts webcast—which includes disastrously overwritten chapter titles like “The Shudder Inducing and Clichéd However Totally False Account of How I Lost My Virginity to a Guy at Community College.”  She handles the challenge ably, though, working in crash-course lit guides to The Scarlet Letter and twisty self-owns like “I’m not really as smart as I think I am” with a casual ease.  By the time she’s riffing with her absolutely delightful parents (Patricia Clarkson & Stanley Tucci), it even feels like she’s having fun (though not near as much fun as they’re having).  I don’t know that the movie ever graduates from cute to hilarious, but I also don’t fit its target demographic anyway: 12-year-olds who want to feel Adult.  The film is basically a slightly-growed-up version of a Disney Channel Original—tipped off by the villainous presence of Amanda Bynes—and for that, it’s endearing enough to get by.

Maybe I’m not giving Easy A enough credit for pushing mainstream-sex-comedy boundaries in the dark days of 2010s.  It blatantly announces to the audience (through rapid-fire montages) that it intends to mash The Scarlet Letter together with 1980s John Hughes comedies, and it certainly achieves that goal, however chaste.  It also takes a few pot shots at overly religious sex-negativity, assuming the audience shares its pronounced secular worldview, which does feel bold for the time.  I’m just hung up on the idea that it’s a teen sex comedy where no teens actually want to have sex (except one dastardly cad who propositions the lead for an act of prostitution).  Its idea of provocation is dressing Stone in lingerie top & blue jeans combos to test the boundaries of her school’s dress code.  That would certainly raise the eyebrows in any American high school, even today, but it still feels timid considering what similar comedies have done since.

-Brandon Ledet

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

I remember being incredibly skeptical of the sudden consensus a couple years back that 1999 was the pinnacle of modern cinema, as solidified by critic Brian Raftery’s book Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen.  As I already rambled on about in my review of The Talented Mr. Ripley when that book was still a hot topic, I believe every Movie Year is practically the same.  Most movies are bad, but a lot of them are great, and it takes time to sift through the deluge to single out the gems.  All we’re experiencing now is the inevitability of critics who were young enough to first start discovering a passion for film in the late-90s now aging into a role as legitimized tastemakers, so that they’re able to collectively repeat inane phrases like “1999: Best Movie Year Ever!!!” loud & often enough that they sound halfway legit. 

I am also guilty of that exact nostalgia bias myself, no matter how skeptical I am of its validity.  While the critical reappraisal of 1999 as the Best Movie Year Ever wasn’t entirely convincing to me in a broad sense, it did highlight a particular facet of that era that does stand out as exceptional to me: its immaculate collection of high school-set comedies.  I will never fully be able to tell if the exquisite run of high school movies from 1998-2001 really was exceptionally great or if I’m just nostalgic for the era because I was entering high school around the time.  Either way, this list of titles just from 1999 seems like a staggering canon of all-time classics to my biased eye: Drop Dead Gorgeous, But I’m a Cheerleader!, 10 Things I Hate About You, Jawbreaker, Election, Cruel Intentions, Drive Me Crazy, She’s All That, etc.  And then there’s the one eerie, troublesome outlier from that 1999 High School Classics canon that feels like it drifted in from another place & time altogether – the debut feature from director Sofia Coppola.

The Virgin Suicides is less the social hierarchy satire that most post-Heathers high school comedies strive for than it is a modernized, American update to the eerie Peter Weir whatsit Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Unlike most 1999 High School Classics, it’s not a comedy at all, but rather a melancholy drama about Big Teenage Feelings and the uncanny nature of nostalgia.  Still, the film indulges in a bemused humor at the expense of the awkwardness of teenage dating rituals in the 1970s Michigan suburbs, often conveying the domestic imprisonment of its titular teenage virgins through a tight-lipped smirk.  Under the severely over-protective eye of their parents, the five young sisters become isolated and lonely to the point of suicidal depression, and the movie sincerely engages with the impact of that tragedy (as opposed to, say, the way teen deaths are handled in Drop Dead Gorgeous, the other Kirsten Dunst classic from that year).  Its amusement with that tragedy is mostly centered on how the girls are perceived by their clueless, infatuated peers.

While The Virgin Suicides is technically about the suicidal sisters, the girls’ story is told through the eyes of their romantically starved neighbors – a group of inexperienced young boys who saw them mostly as a window into the supposed enigma of femininity.  All the Picnic at Hanging Rock supernatural mystery surrounding the girls is an extension of their distanced male admirers’ POV, who try to solve their lives and deaths as if they were a curious puzzle and not simply victims of a neurotically repressive parenting style.  By tapping into that nostalgia-tinged teenage longing, Coppola evokes something intensely powerful untouched by any other high school movie of its era.  She stated in an interview, “I really didn’t know I wanted to be a director until I read The Virgin Suicides and saw so clearly how it had to be done.  I immediately saw the central story about what distance and time and memory do to you, and about the extraordinary power of the unfathomable.”  You’re not going to find that kind of shit in 10 Things I Hate About You, as fun as it is as a more typical literary “adaptation” from that era.

I love The Virgin Suicides.  It feels more complexly funny, dreamlike, and femme every time I watch it, especially since I was a clueless, romance-starved teenage boy myself when I first rented it from a Blockbuster in the early-2000s New Orleans suburbs.  There was a spoil of Teen Movie riches flooding video store shelves in that era, but none of them hit the exact dazed, Hanging Rock tone Coppola’s film did.  I won’t cosign the broader 1999: Best Movie Year ever discourse (which really doesn’t matter, since I appear to be the only person still hung up on it), but if can we narrow that claim down to 1999: Best High School Movie Year Ever the argument is much, much more compelling – and this inclusion in that canon is one of the most impeccable standouts.

-Brandon Ledet

Sugar & Spice (2001)

By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.

Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!

At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).

So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.

-Brandon Ledet

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. (2013)

One of my favorite filmmaking trends over the past decade has been how the visual gimmickry of found-footage horror has kept up with the evolving user interface of social media platforms & personal tech. The way Unfriended documents late nights on Skype, how Sickhouse reimagines The Blair Witch Project as a series of Snapchat posts, or how Cam turns an OnlyFans camgirl session into a surrealist nightmare have all been uniquely fascinating to me, among other examples. The one major social media platform I’ve never seen a horror film tackle through this evolving gimmick is Twitter. This immediately makes sense, as the mostly text-based platform isn’t especially suited to the visual medium of cinema the way, say, CandyCrush or Instagram or a Facebook timeline are. Still, you’d think some gimmicky schlock horror would have tried to make a spooky Twitter feed movie by now (even if I’d be the only opening weekend audience they could pull).

I did happen to find a movie that adapts the feel of scrolling through a Twitter feed into its in-the-moment narrative; it just happened to be in an entirely different genre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama about a listless teenage girl’s uneventful senior year of high school. Its narrative and dialogue were directly adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylony. It’s an experimental work in some ways, allowing the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom to top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims, but it somehow never spirals out into total mayhem. For the most part, the film plays like any other high school indie drama about teen-girl boredom & ennui. It just frequently interrupts that familiar tone & setting with the out-of-left field topics of its Twitter account source material, establishing a kind of minimalist absurdism that feels very reminiscent of early-era Twitter, when the site was mostly a platform for users to publish passing thoughts, no matter how inane (as opposed to now, where it’s more of a tool for self-promotion & political mobilization).

The referenced tweets from the @marylony account appear onscreen as if they were Silent Era title cards, punctuated by the clacking sounds of a desktop keyboard. Many of these dispatches from a teen girl’s mind are motivational platitudes like “Stand your ground”, “Practice leads to improvement”, and “Everything takes time” – lofty sentiments that help the titular Mary get through the boredom of a typical school day, but don’t mean much to the audience that trails behind her. Others have a more literal, immediate effect on the plot. When Mary muses out of boredom “I want a jellyfish” in a tweet, a FedEx package instantly arrives on her doorstep. When she writes “So lucky” she stumbles upon a duffle bag full of cash. When she mysteriously tweets “Today in France” she’s suddenly moping about Paris instead of her Thai boarding school, no questions asked. The film mostly sticks to a low-key, low-energy mode of absurdism, though, not taking the bait when tweets like “I’m living in multiple realms” or “Is my heart large enough for the world?” invite a Michel Gondry-scale twee fantasy tangent that the film’s budget and high school drama boundaries can’t afford.

I love that writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit experimented with how to adapt the look & feel of a Twitter feed into cinematic language, even if he did so outside my beloved Evil Tech horror subgenre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. has no real overriding conflicts or excitement to it outside that central experiment. We mostly watch a sweet, average high school senior navigate low-stakes romantic crushes, yearbook committee deadlines, and authoritarian school administrators in an effort to fill her days. It’s the exact kind of nothing-going-on adolescent boredom that would inspire someone to spend all day on Twitter, broadcasting every errant thought out into the void in hopes that a resulting notification would spark some much-needed dopamine. The only fault with the film, really, is that it’s over two hours long, which is pushing how much listless teenage melancholy anyone can pay full attention to in one sitting. I enjoyed the movie a great deal as a lighthearted narrative experiment, but if it were closer to the 70-80min range I might be totally swooning over it as an Online Cinema masterpiece.

-Brandon Ledet

The True Terror in The Faculty (1998) is High School Athletics

I was lodged so embarrassingly deep in the target demographic for the 1998 Robert Rodriguez creature feature The Faculty that I spent my pre-teen allowance money on its soundtrack CD. The first time I heard Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” was as a Creed cover on that soundtrack, years before the band re-branded as Christian Rock. The movie that soundtrack was cross-promoting was a blatant attempt to update the Invasion of the Body Snatchers alien-takeover template for the post-Scream era. Its Kevin Williamson-penned screenplay even features a lengthy discussion of Body Snatchers lore, leaning into the writer’s weakness for self-referential pop culture meta-analysis. As with Williamson’s work on Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Cursed, this winking at-the-camera dialogue is delivered by hip, young teen actors (Josh Harnett, Elijah Wood, Clea Duvall, Jordana Brewster, Usher, etc.) to appeal directly to a high school age crowd with an expendable income – the same teen-cool throwback aesthetic that currently fuels The CW’s Riverdale. Between those just-barely-older-than-me movie stars, their weirdly horny relationship with the adult staff, the film’s gateway introduction to sci-fi themed gore & body horror, and the marketing’s hard-rock posturing, I was helpless to resist the allure of The Faculty. But it turns out my vulnerability as the film’s target demographic runs even deeper than that.

The central threat in this drive-in era creature feature throwback is an invading alien force that burrows deep into the brains of its human hosts – turning them into mind-controlled Lovecraftian monsters who hide in plain sight as suburban high school teachers. The intended menace of this transformation is the spread & enforcement of Conformity, a satirical target that would have loudly spoken to me as a preteen nü-metal shithead (and one that’s increasingly hilarious in retrospect, given the characters’ unanimous modeling & marketing of a Tommy Hilfiger wardrobe). However, because of all the stylized, teen-targeted cool of this sci-fi mayhem, the alien creatures themselves register mostly as badass, fist-pumping payoffs worthy of celebration – especially in moments that opt for practical effects gore over CG rendering. The only aspect of The Faculty that can remain genuinely creepy, then, is the behavior those creatures illicit in their titular school staff hosts. Yet, even those results are varied on a pure horror scale, as the movie insists that the women on the school staff transform into horned-up dominatrix types rather than personality-free Conformity ghouls – upping the film’s appeal to hormonally-addled teens but muting its potential for genuine terror. One major member of the staff sidesteps that horny makeover entirely, though: the high school sports coach, played by the liquid Terminator himself, Robert Patrick. He remains an absolute fucking nightmare, no matter how goofy or dated the film might feel elsewhere.

Part of the coach’s terrifying presence in the film is due to Patrick’s hyper-masculine performance as an emotionless hard ass; part of it is that his gender allowed him to avoid the inhibiting sexualization that dampened the presence of fellow castmates like Selma Hayek & Famke Jensen. For me, personally, though, what’s really terrifying about Patrick’s onscreen menace as a rage-filled monster is that it recalls every single relationship I had with a high school or middle school PE coach growing up. As the kind of wimpy indoor kid who’d much rather watch horror movies than play football, I consistently had combative relationships with PE coaches throughout my educational career. I was terrified of them; they were not at all amused by me either. This culminated in being kicked out of PE entirely in my senior year of high school, when the coach reassigned me to library duty for that period (a blessing he foolishly coded as a punishment) and told me I would only pass if he never had to see or talk to me again. Watching Robert Patrick bully the similarly wimpy, unathletic Elijah Wood for daring to eat lunch alone on his football field was a vivid flashback to that conflict. When the coach jokingly recruits the nerd for track & field, Wood protests “I don’t think a person should run unless he’s being chased.” The coach retorts, “Get out of here,” ushering the twerp out of his macho domain. I’ve thankfully never had a coach follow up that conflict with an act of physical violence (represented here in Lovecraftian tentacled monstrosities), but I always feared that transgression was imminent, so this particular coach-wimp relationship dynamic taps into a very specific source of fear long buried in my past.

Of course, a burgeoning horror film nerd having a combative relationship with a high school sports coach is not all that unique to my own lived experience. If anything, centering the film’s source of terror on a scary macho football coach is just as blatant in appealing to a specific target demographic as the hip-teen casting & soundtrack contributions from then-bankable bands like Stabbing Westward & The Offspring. You can feel that screenplay-level machination in the way Patrick’s character is broadly portrayed as a sports coach archetype. He’s referred to simply as Coach and is an instructor in seemingly every sport played at the school: football, track, swimming, basketball, etc. Like Terry Quinn’s iconic performance as the archetypal Stepfather or Corbin Bersen’s skin-crawling performance as the archetypal Dentist, Robert Patrick transforms the broad concept of the high school sports Coach into a classic movie monster abomination on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or The Wolfman. It would have robbed the film of some of its other post-Scream late-90s charms and transformed the endeavor into something much more thoroughly horrifying, but I think they could have easily reworked the entire premise to be about that one monstrous villain alone – under the title The Coach. His performance is that scary, and the real-life terror of sports coaches runs psychologically deep for many horror nerds – something I had forgotten until I was confronted by the menace of this particular space alien bully all over again.

-Brandon Ledet

Jawbreaker (1999)

I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.

More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.

One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?

Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives & Skin (2019)

Is there such a thing as low-key camp or subtly played melodrama? Are those descriptors too oxymoronic to effectively describe anything? I’m picturing the “silent runners” window blinds subplot of Twin Peaks, Laura Dern’s monologue about the robins in Blue Velvet, the thin barrier between humor & heartbreak in The Elephant Man. Basically, anytime a David Lynch movie makes you laugh but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. The D.I.Y. teen mystery Knives & Skin operates entirely within this difficult-to-define subtle melodrama paradigm, somehow sustaining the quiet, off-putting humor of the silent runners gag for its entire runtime. It filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.

Much like Twin Peaks, the premise of Knives & Skin concerns the disappearance and possible murder of small-town teen Carolyn Harper, whose sudden absence shakes the foundations of her community. Unlike Twin Peaks, the film has very little interest in building mystery or menace around that disappearance. We all know exactly what happened to Carolyn Danvers & who was involved. The only mystique at play is in puzzling our way through other characters’ erratic expressions of grief in the weeks following the incident. If your favorite touches to Twin Peaks were the silent runners or the creamed corn or the fish in the percolator or Leland singing “Mairzy Doats,” you’re likely to be tickled by the quietly absurdist character quirks that run throughout Knives & Skin. Mothers dress in their daughters’ clothes and wander around wielding giant bread knives in a total daze; birthday clowns attentively perform cunnilingus full make-up; high school Beaver mascots trade mixtapes to cheerleaders in exchange for alcohol-soaked tampons. It’s a deceptively wild, over-the-top film, considering how much of it is communicated in hushed, sleepy tones.

Since it isn’t especially invested in its own central mystery and filters everything though a lethargic camp remove, this is a film that lives & dies by its aesthetic. There were some audible grumblings from the more macho end of our Overlook Film Festival audience about how it was the worst film they’ve ever seen at the fest, but I also heard other people say it was their favorite feature they saw all weekend. That harsh divide makes total sense. This is not crafted to satisfy your traditional Horror Bro. It feels like a murder mystery novel that was scribbled into a bejeweled Trapper Keeper with scented gel pens. Every single frame is bathed in bisexual crosslighting. The few possessions Carolyn Danvers leaves behind magically glow like fluorescent highlighters. Her classmates often breaks into acapella choir arrangements of 80s pop songs like “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Blue Monday.” It’s a gloomy, but aggressively femme teen aesthetic, as if Lost River were made by Ryan Gosling’s adoring superfans instead of the heartthrob himself.

I’m not exactly sure what Knives & Skin is trying to accomplish. In brief flashes it discusses parental grief, sex work, mental illness, enthusiastic consent, and how talented clowns are at giving head, but never with anything clear or nuanced to say. I still very much appreciated it as a beautiful, delirious slow-drift though a Teen Lynch aesthetic, though, especially once I realized how much it was antagonizing the more macho end of the room. I’m still not confident in saying there is such a thing as low-key camp or subtle melodrama, but if they do exist this movie is steeped in them – like so many alcohol-soaked tampons.

-Brandon Ledet

Fans of the Raunchy, Sex-Positive Teen Comedy Blockers (2018) Should Double Back to Watch The To Do List (2013)

Listening to an interview with Kay Cannon promoting her film Blockers on Ira Madison III’s Keep It podcast, it was exciting to hear her acknowledge the film’s intended purpose as a major studio femme subversion of the losing-your-virginity teen sex comedy. The teen sex comedy is just dripping with machismo as a medium, as it’s most clearly defined by the bro-friendly boundaries of titles like Superbad, American Pie, and Porky’s. As many of my recent favorite comedies have been femme subversions of traditionally macho subjects (The Bronze & Wetlands being particular standouts), I 100% welcome Blockers as a continued corrective to the exhausting omnipresence of bro sex humor. However, I do wish Blockers wasn’t being critically framed as an innovator within that corrective, since that claim ignores 2013’s already criminally overlooked The To Do List. Another sex-positive, femme subversion of the raunchy, losing-our-virginity sex comedy, The To Do List was critically buried upon its initial release for its perceived overreliance on 90s nostalgia to sell its humor. Every passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom caring about such a triviality, especially when you consider the film’s other virtues. If we can forgive the cult classic Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion for featuring adult comedians reliving their 1980s heyday in extended flashbacks, I‘d like to think we can accept The To Do List expanding that bit into the next decade, especially considering the level of talent on-hand: Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Lauren Lapkus, D’Arcy Carden, Alia Shawkat, and (in the starring role) Aubrey Plaza. The To Do List is overdue for critical reappraisal as a modern comedy sleeper, both on its own terms and as an active subversion of the same teen sex comedy tropes challenged by Blockers.

Aubrey Plaza stars in The To Do List as a high school valedictorian who fears her dedication to book-smarts has left her unprepared for practical social interactions. Most significantly, she expects college to be a nonstop orgiastic bacchanal that she will be out of the loop for as a nerdy virgin who hasn’t even shared a kiss. As an overachiever, she attempts to correct this problem by dedicating the entire summer before college to methodical, scientific sexual experimentation. It’s a plan that extends beyond shedding her virginity to include activities most high school students wouldn’t dream of attempting: rimming, motorboating, pearl necklaces, etc. This pursuit of sexual experience leads to inevitable John Hughesian tropes of Plaza’s in-over-her-head protagonist being confronted with the choice between two suitors: the “bad boy” she lusts for and the “good guy” who longs after her. In that moment of crisis, she smartly chooses neither, pointing out the impermanence & ultimate insignificance of most high school flings. Sex is paradoxically explained to not be a big deal, but also requiring careful consideration for your partners’ feelings. It’s a complex, but necessary lesson for high school kids to learn, one coupled with matter-of-fact statements of sexual intent & partners’ enthusiastic consent. A large portion of the plot is also dedicated to three teen girls’ lifelong friendship and their frequently thwarted plans to watch a rented VHS copy of Beaches together at some point during their last summer before college. Blockers explores a very similar friendship dynamic, although it admittedly better spreads the narrative focus around to each member of the group (and the overprotective anxieties of their respective parents). Both films are thoughtful explorations of femme teen sexuality & friendships without feeling at all leering or exploitative, likely in part because they were both helmed by women (The To Do List was written & directed by Maggie Carey).

The charm of both Blockers & The To Do List is that their sex-positive politics & wholesome emotional indulgences are allowed to co-exist with the typical gross-out gags that accompany the raunchy teen sex comedy. Although it tends to cater to straight male sensibilities, this is a genre that owes its space under the mainstream comedy umbrella to the raucous envelope-pushers of John Waters’s early career, particularly Pink Flamingos (even if by way of its influence on the Farrelly Brothers). Blockers goes for broke in its own gross-out moments of teen puke & butt-chugged beers, but The To Do List hits even closer to home in echoing its Pink Flamingos roots by depicting Aubrey Plaza defiantly chomping on a turd. Cinema is beautiful, y’all. Both films also mine a lot of awkward humor from parents being trapped in the same space as their children in the middle of sexual congress, going as far into The To Do List as having them lock eyes with their kids mid-orgasm or shaking the hand of the person currently fucking them. Dismissing The To Do List outright for blatantly adult comedians playing young or for 90s-nostalgic references to things like Hillary Clinton & jean skorts is an oddly reductive way of looking at a comedy that actively challenges the same gendered, double standard sex comedy tropes later subverted in Blockers. It’s even arguable that The To Do List is the more aggressive of the pair in that subversion, as its dedication to gross-out raunch is much more prolonged & pronounced. If nothing else, The To Do List was also prescient of the losing-your-virginity-on-top gag later repeated in the critical darling Lady Bird. That’s gotta be worth something, right?

Blockers is a great film that deserves to be celebrated for its femme subversions of a long-established comedic boys’ club that only gets sourer every passing decade. I don’t at all mean to detract from what Cannon accomplished there. I would just want to stress to anyone desperate to see more of that subversion out in the pop media landscape that The To Do List is well worth a critical reevaluation in the same context (along with the equally underrated The Bronze). If we could be gifted with one heartfelt, femme gross-out sex comedy a year like Blockers or The To Do List, the world would be a better, filthier place. We deserve more movies like them, but in the mean time we should give proper due to the ones we already have.

-Brandon Ledet