Movies Without Pity
The To Do List: Sex and the Single High School Girl

Since the pop culture nostalgia wheel spins in 20-year cycles, the wave of '90s nostalgia we're currently experiencing has arrived right on schedule, with such period remnants as the Backstreet Boys, Boy Meets World and even House Party washing up on our 21st-century shores to appeal to that era's now grown-up teenagers and whatever offspring they may have since spawned. Maggie Carey's feature filmmaking debut The To Do List cannily capitalizes on the "We Love the '90s" trend, setting viewers down in the bygone year of 1993 and telling a story that's essentially a female-driven version of the end-of-the-millennium hit, American Pie with Aubrey Plaza in the Jason Biggs role as the last American virgin who spends her senior year of high school pursuing an independent study in sex education.

Female sexuality is so often treated with a mixture of fear, hostility and outright disdain in male-driven sex comedies (including the American Pie sequels) that it's well past time for a film and filmmaker to flip the gender switch and let women explore the erotic frontier without immediately falling into the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. And, as written by Carey, Plaza's Brandy Klark is a far more interesting personality than Biggs's Jim Levenstein. Where the latter was content to let things happen to him, Brandy is more proactive in expanding her sexual horizons, coming up with the titular list of to-do items (starting with masturbation and escalating to hand jobs, oral sex and full-on intercourse) and scribbling it down in her Trapper Keeper. In her love of organization and relentless enthusiasm for busy work -- not to mention her epic dorkitude -- she's like a high-school version of Leslie Knope and you can see Plaza taking several performance cues from her Parks and Rec co-star Amy Poehler.

As gifted as Plaza is, she's not yet as comfortable in the spotlight as Poehler and doesn't possess her comic range. That wasn't as noticeable in her previous star turn in last year's overpraised indie Safety Not Guaranteed because that role was more or less an extension of the surly Pawnee civil government employee she plays to perfection of Parks. Brandy represents a more significant departure from her typical persona and the transition isn't effortless; there's a stiffness and awkwardness to her presence here that, while somewhat appropriate to the character, feels less like a performance choice and more like a failure of nerve. (Plaza has spoken in interviews about how awkward she found the sex scenes in particular and that's all-too-evident onscreen, where she mainly looks scared, even when she's meant to be aroused.) Carey's script cries out for a star more capable of depicting Brandy's progressions towards sexual self-confidence, somebody like Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat, who appears in a supporting role as one of Brandy's friends and makes more of an impression in her limited screentime than Plaza does for the duration of the movie.

It says something that Plaza does her strongest work in scenes where she's part of the larger ensemble, whether that's in her home, where her bitchy elder sister (perfectly played by Rachel Bilson) subjects her to ridicule while her parents (Connie Britton and Clark Gregg) try to decide how best to handle her emerging sexuality, or at her summer job at the local public pool, staffed by a motley crew of miscreants that includes Bill Hader (Carey's real-life husband), Donald Glover and Scott Porter as the studly lifeguard/musician who becomes Brandy's own Shannon Elizabeth. Driven by Carey's snappy dialogue and the deft interplay of these crack comic actors, these pool sequences are superior to the water park scenes in this summer's (guy-centric) coming-of-age comedy, The Way, Way Back, and could have been a film in and of itself… think Diner at a pool.

Lest I sound too dismissive of The To Do List, there's a good deal to like about the movie, starting with the steady stream of '90s references, which Carey handles in a way that tickles the nostalgia funny bone without overdoing it. You also couldn't ask for a better collection of funny people to spend 90 minutes in the company of; even when the jokes don't land, the sheer likability of the cast keeps the audience engaged. And then there's that simple novelty of depicting a teenage girl's sexual awakening in an upbeat, funny way without passing judgment on her character or reducing her to a trophy for some guy to "win." Fact is, many now-classic comedies -- from Animal House to American Pie -- are far from perfect films. They endure in large part because they speak to the young audience that discovered them at the time; perhaps twenty years from now -- when the pop culture nostalgia wheel spins around to the 2010s -- The To Do List will be cited as an influence by the female director of 2033's highest-grossing sex comedy.

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