The To Do List
2013 • 104 minutes • CBS Films
When Easy A came out, it was hailed as an intelligent, female-led teen sex comedy. It’s a fun trifle of a movie, remembered fondly for Emma Stone’s charisma, the light banter of her parents, and, of course, the fact that it’s a successful female-led comedy. There’s just one problem: Easy A is not actually a sex comedy. It’s a comedy about social politics, particularly those concerning gender and “correct” sexual activity for straight women and queer men. (Emma Stone’s fictional promiscuity is initially to help a gay friend stay in the closet for safety reasons.) That’s awesome, but it does remind us of the dearth of actual female-led teen sex comedies.
There’s two major factors for that: our culture and the MPAA, which both harshly punish open female sexuality. For instance, Coming Soon, a 1999 teen sex comedy, was initially slammed with the distribution destroying rating of NC-17 from the MPAA, despite the film featuring less explicit sexuality than American Pie, solely because the film focuses on a trio of teenage girls, not teenage boys. While the rating was later revised to an R, the MPAA’s distaste for female sexuality—especially if she appears to be enjoying herself, because, as we all know, female sexuality is far more dangerous than a head shot—is widely known, as seen in the damning documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated.
Maggie Carey’s The To Do List aims—or aimed, since it came out last year—to correct this dearth. The To Do List, despite drawing inspiration from the same John Hughes movies that inspired (and were directly referenced in Easy A), is a teen girl sex comedy at long last. Aubrey Plaza plays Type A overachiever Brandi Klark, valedictorian of the class of 1993 in Boise, Idaho. After experiencing sexual attraction for the first time in her life (to the not-so-bright but gorgeous Rusty Waters), Brandi realizes that she knows nothing about sex and sets out to correct that in her usual manner—with extensive research, interviewing the women in her life, and making a color-coded to do list of sexual activities in her Trapper Keeper—before heading off to Georgetown on a full ride.
The film’s 1993 setting might strike some as a kitsch affectation, but it makes complete sense. First, that’s when Carey graduated, and she mercifully remembers that not every teenage epoch is the same. Secondly, it means that Brandi’s research is limited by her physical resources—surprisingly, the Encyclopædia Britannica circa 1993 does not have a listing for rim job—and the people around her. Largely, her very conservative father (Clark Gregg), matter-of-fact mother (Connie Britton), lazy sister (Rachel Bilson), and best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele).
Delightfully, the film eschews perhaps more period appropriate small town politics in order to let the lady raunch rip. While Brandi is called a slut once, it’s in response to her checking off dry humping with Wendy’s long-time crush, violating the sacred “hoes before bros” pact between her, Fiona, and Wendy. Other than that, Fiona and Wendy are heartily in favor of the list, doling out tips and genially assisting the research process (usually by reading Penthouse at the pool Brandi works at over the summer). The boys of the town are largely in awe, assuming that genius Brandi is writing a sex manual and hope that she will come knocking on their door. (Donald Glover’s character, sweetly, asks her for help, because he wants to be a better lover.) The only person put out by her mission is Cameron, Brandi’s bland science lab partner and future Georgetown peer, who is desperately in love with her and mistakes her intentions.
Brandi and Cameron’s relationship is an interesting, if predictable, gender swap: Brandi, who is more engaged than Plaza’s usual characters but still distant and analytical, has little to no romantic interest in Cameron, while Cameron is over-invested in everything. I was quite worried that Brandi and Cameron were going to end up together by the end, Brandi having learned that sex is better with feelings, but, wonderfully, she doesn’t. After having successful penetrative sex with Rusty, her two “suitors” start fighting on her lawn and Brandi separates them. Each ask if she regrets having sex with them (Rusty) or hurting them emotionally (Cameron). Brandi apologizes to Cameron, but admits to having no regrets. “I get it. It’s not having sex that’s a big deal, it’s this—all this feelings and emotional crap,” she tells them. And then she abandons them, because she needs to apologize to her friends for putting sex before their friendship via musical interlude.
In fact, The To Do List is, besides being an unapologetic sex comedy about a teenage girl, pretty feminist. Brandi herself is, while never using the word, a feminist—she’s pro-choice, worships Hillary Clinton, whose framed photograph she keeps in her room, and lectures her older sister, who plans to marry and never work, that women need men like fish need bicycles. While Judge Klark is squeamish about sex, especially about the fact that his wife is more sexually experienced than he is, his response is treated like the aberration. Meanwhile, Mrs. Klark, a nurse, is the best mother ever. While she frowns on cursing, she calmly talks to her daughter about sex, makes sure she has everything she needs to practice safe sex, and, when Brandi balks at her mother sharing too personal information, merely states “noted” and respects her daughter’s boundaries. That’s not just radical for film, that’s radical for reality.
Oh, and yes, obviously, this movie is pretty explicit. She eats poop at one point, assuming it’s a candy bar à la Caddyshack, but that’s honestly the most disgusting thing in the film, unless you are one of those little olds at the MPAA. In which case, this will give you a heart attack, so we can someday revise the MPAA so female sexuality is not hidden on screen. A girl can dream, can’t she?
I rented this DVD from the public library.