Teenage sex comedies have become more sophisticated since their heyday in the 1980s, but in so doing they’ve lost something vital to their success. The greatest movies of this genre remind us how important sex seemed when we were virgins and poke fun at the absurd lengths to which many of us went in order to overcome this milestone. The movies of the ‘80s had an endearing innocence, a guileless charm that felt well-suited to stories about characters who were themselves naïve and inexperienced. It’s no surprise that many of the most memorable films about young people eager to rid themselves of their virginity take place in small towns and in bygone decades, evoking a nostalgic lack of worldliness. Films from Bob Clark’s infamous Porky's (made in 1982 but set in mid-'50s rural Florida) to Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s acclaimed Superbad (made in 2007, but set in mid-'90s suburban Nevada) happen in the times and places in which the filmmakers themselves came of age, which befits their characters' journeys of discovery more than a contemporary tableau would. In this tradition, writer/director Maggie Carey sets her debut feature, The To Do List, in the early-'90s Boise, Idaho of her youth. But unlike her predecessors, Carey makes no attempt to recall a sweeter and more chaste era. Rather, the film illustrates just how much kids knew about sex by the time Carey was a teenager.
Of all the losing-your-virginity pictures made over the last five decades, very few are told from the female perspective. My favorite is 1980’s Little Darlings, with Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal, a film that was considered mildly scandalous at the time but now seems charmingly tame and sincere. The central contention of Little Darlings is that, contrary to outside appearances, losing your virginity isn't a game or a competition, and it's actually far more complicated emotionally than peers make it seem. The Do To List takes an opposing stance, one much more closely aligned with the sensibilities of today: since high school kids aren't yet fully developed emotionally, they should simply focus on exploring sex and having fun in relationships, rather than worrying about falling in love, forming lasting commitments, or any of sex's other, weightier ramifications. It's a valid argument, and Carey has devised a premise ripe for comedy. It's the summer after high school, and bookish virgin Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) wants to catch up with her more experienced peers by the time she gets to college in the fall. Studious overachiever that she is, Brandy methodically compiles an extensive list of sexual acts she’ll need to try if she's going to rise from the bottom of her class, and then diligently sets about checking off the boxes. Unlike most teen films, which usually center on a group of hard-up boys, Brandy is the only virgin in The Do To List.
The film has a lot going for it. Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, TV's Parks and Recreation) is excellent as Brandy. She can play a high school girl convincingly, and she toggles nimbly between goofy and sexy as each scene demands. There are also some big, surprising laughs in the picture. It's much funnier than, for example, 2011's much-lauded Bridesmaids, another film that attempted to make a statement about gender equality by showing women acting as stupidly, libidinally and ridiculously as men. Unfortunately, like Bridesmaids, The To Do List also relies too heavily on this oversimplified, pseudo-feminist approach. While the antics depicted in The To Do List come off as less desperate to please a demographically diverse audience than Kristen Wiig and the rest of the Bridesmaids gang, the film suffers from a similar lack of authenticity. The characters’ exaggerated behavior dictates to us what we are supposed to think and feel, and prevents us from connecting with any undefined, but palpable human emotions they might be experiencing.It's difficult but not impossible to avoid crossing the fine line between believable storytelling and over-the-top shtick in broad, raunchy comedies like this. One excellent example of a film that creates believable characters with relatable emotional struggles without sacrificing laughs is Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe's 1982 classic Fast Times At Ridgemont High. That movie contains memorably hilarious situations and endlessly quotable dialogue, but it's also a shrewd observation of the radical ways in which childhood changed and became abbreviated during the status-obsessed '80s. Fast Times is about getting initiated into the world of sex and romance, but it's equally concerned with the experience of entering the workforce for the first time. It’s a shrewd film about growing up “fast.” The Do To List nearly achieves an equal depth, but Carey pushes the humor and the themes to such an extreme that her film loses any chance for lasting eloquence. The film asserts that teenage sex and love are largely meaningless diversions, and that human connections come and go as fleetingly as music or fashion trends, but since The To Do List lacks the requisite emotional grounding, its own impact is just as ephemeral.