Sunday, May 08, 2011

Joining the A List

I don't watch a lot of high school comedies. Even though I was in high school when they came out, I wasn't a fan of John Hughes movies, which are apparently the template for the form. For that matter, these kinds of movies aren't made for middle-aged women, though I certainly know plenty of people in my demographic who eat this shit up. Arrested adolescence, I guess.

High school comedies don't generally resemble my high school experience in any respect, given that most such movies from Hollywood represent a level of affluence that I never saw when I was in high school and a level of freedom and irresponsibility that was never allowed among my high school friends. Maybe it's a California thing. We didn't have a beach, either. The closest high school comedy ever came to my high school experience during the golden age of high school comedies was The Breakfast Club, which kinda sorta resembled my drama club. (Yes, I was a drama geek). Then again, it's been a long time, and maybe I just didn't know the right circle of friends. Plus, I had other issues to contend with of a sort that I've never seen addressed in a mainstream movie about teenagers. For the most part, I have to approach these movies like like they're fantasies, or anthropological reports from an alien culture. 2010's Easy A (directed by Will Gluck) is no different. I don't recognize any of these people. Even the Christian kids are different from the Christian kids I used to know. That doesn't mean that the movie is bad, though. Quite the contrary.

The "A" in the title of Easy A is a scarlett letter, directly in reference to Hawthorne's novel, which our heroine is reading in the course of the movie. Our heroine is one Olive Penderghast, and she inadvertently starts a rumor about losing her virginity to a college freshman when she dodges a dreary weekend with her best friend's family. Unfortunately for her, she's been overheard by the holier than thou Marianne, organizer of the busybody Christian students who have of late convinced the school to change their mascot to a woodchuck from a blue devil. The rumor spreads, and soon, Olive is thought of as the school slut, even though she's never so much as kissed a boy. In defiance, she sells her reputation to kids needing to enhance theirs. The beneficiaries of her largesse are the downtrodden: the gay kid needing a beard to survive high school, the fat kid who doesn't have the confidence to even approach girls, the wretched refuse of the high school caste system. She doesn't actually sleep with any of them, but she allows the rumors to spread. Initially, her social status is slightly elevated, but the whole house of cards comes crashing down on her eventually.

Had this been made thirty years ago, there would have been a lot of actual sex, but this is a PG-13 version of an exploitation premise, and it's shot through with an Austen-esque attention to both social mores and language. Olive Penderghast is both literate and self-aware and it shows. She knows the cliches of the story in which she finds herself:

"Whatever happened to chivalry? Does it only exist in 80's movies? I want John Cusack holding a boombox outside my window. I wanna ride off on a lawnmower with Patrick Dempsey. I want Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me. I want Judd Nelson thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. Just once I want my life to be like an 80's movie, preferably one with a really awesome musical number for no apparent reason. But no, no, John Hughes did not direct my life."

Of course, it all turns out JUST like this, and it IS pleasurable to watch it. It's a contemporary version of a fairy tale, I guess, and the movie would function passably well if it existed only on this level. But it doesn't, and here's where the surprise comes in.

Easy A is a fairly serious feminist movie masquerading as a trifle, which may be the best way to sell its ideas about slut shaming and racism and homophobia and the other axes of kyriarchy at work in the petri dish of the high school caste system. It addresses the issues it raises with aplomb, often speaking directly to the camera about them. This conceit could turn into a polemic, but that trap is deftly avoided through the agency, again, of Olive's own self-awareness, and by the movie's casting.

Speaking of which, if Emma Stone wasn't a bona fide movie star before this movie, she should, by rights, be one now. I mean, sure, the filmmakers have surrounded her with terrific supporting actors in Thomas Hayden Church, Stanley Tucci, Amanda Bynes, and Patricia Clarkson, but this is a first-person movie that places Stone at the center of every scene. She carries the movie on her back without bending under the strain. Hell, she does more than that. She makes what could be another painfully trite high school drama seem like it has some pith and moment to it. She elevates the movie, which, of course, is what by-golly movie stars are supposed to do. It's going to suck watching her drift into rom com heroine or hero's girlfriend roles from here on out. I hope she manages to dodge all that. We shall see.

So, yeah, I fell for it all. Not passionately, but it held my interest on a Saturday evening when my usual diet of horror movies couldn't and I didn't feel poorer for it. And, hell, I'll admit to having a warm glow inside when Olive rides off into the sunset on a lawnmower. I'm a sap sometimes.

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