The To Do List is the latest in a long line of teen sex comedies. In a genre traditionally defined by men (Superbad, Adventureland), I find it refreshing to see writer/director Maggie Carey’s name flash up on screen, and with so much discussion surrounding the absence of women in film this year I can’t be the only one. Maybe I’m so hard up for a female perspective at the movies that my judgement has been warped by estrogen starvation, but The To Do List does have some hilarious insight into sex from a female perspective. But the film’s overall message is one we’ve heard by the countless men that have come before.
The premise of this film is reminiscent of others: studious sexual novice Brandy (Aubrey Plaza) decides to cram years worth of sexual experimentation into the summer before college to capture the attention of the dreamy Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Of course she has the full support of her sexually free girlfriends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele),who encourage Brandy to attack the problem with the same gusto she approaches mathletes. What results is the titular “To Do” list. Not a list of people to do, but a list of sexual activities to first define and then practice before the final exam in college. Inevitably her shy best friend Cameron (Johnny Simmons), and her former classmates Duffy (Christopher Minz-Plasse), and Derrick (Donald Glover) become unwitting but pathetically willing instruments in her experimentation. While Brandy pursues her sex studies, she gets a summer job at the neighborhood pool. It’s really in this venue where Brandy experiences long-lasting personal growth alongside her well-intentioned deadbeat boss (Bill Hader).
The derivative plot points are a slight problem for the film, but a bigger issue I have is the story taking place in the early 90s. This film exists before the time when it was common practice to hear something at school, act like you know what’s going on to save face, and then run home to Google to cure your ignorance (and possibly scare you even more). Instead of a search engine, Brandy relies on her sexually experienced sister (Rachel Bison) to fill in the knowledge gaps. While the 90s setting is necessary to eliminate the pesky existence of the internet, it doesn’t add much else besides some well-crafted jokes riffing on our nostalgia. The sexual politics of the film feel much closer to the here and now than grunge music and denim vests, and the disconnect sometimes feels startling.
The film overall has a sex-positive message that is complicated by feelings of postmodern awareness and social responsibility. Reflecting the endless gray area we seem to be in right now, the film ends up feeling wishy-washy, declaring that ‘Sex really isn’t a big deal, don’t worry about it! Well, worry about it, because you really want to do it with someone special. But I’m not sorry I did what I did because the story is going to be awesome to tell my kids one day!’ Lucky for Carey that anxiety over sexual understanding is familiar territory for many women. But in a world that is obsessed with experiences, I’m wondering how lessons can be learned when we are so hyper vigilant of our actions that even what we learn is a carefully orchestrated effort to make us feel we did what is expected of us at a given age. By skirting around the complicated issues women face, the film only taps into one aspect of this anxiety, keeping this comedy focused on laughs.
To that end, The To Do List works mainly because of the comedic talents of Aubrey Plaza, Bill Hader (who I don’t usually find funny, but was entertaining here), Johnny Simmons, and Connie Britton who plays Plaza’s supportive mother. Carey’s script provides the proper canvas for plenty of great moments, and despite a reliance on “gross-out” humor, one of the best jokes features a confused Cameron trying to figure out the complexities of a skort during an awkward make out session.
The ingredients for a larger comment on teens and sexuality are present in this film, but instead the action dissolves into a rather anti-climactic conclusion of “sisters before misters.” It’s a meaningful sentiment that concludes many a teen comedy, but unfortunately is not setup properly in the beginning of this film or maintained enough throughout to warrant its prominence as the takeaway message.
The female experience is impossible to write about independently from the male-centric culture that surrounds it. Coming from a woman, this film probably has more unfair expectations placed on it to come from a place of depth and insight than other films in the genre with similar male protagonists. For a first time filmmaker I think The To Do List is a solid, if slightly generic, sex comedy that resonates well with men and women while feeling genuine in its delivery.
The To Do List opens today in Philly area theaters.