'Easy A': A Teen Sex Comedy, Minus the Sex


Olive Bridge Entertainment

Easy A, which opened this weekend, is a movie with many goals: At various points, it tries to be a satire of contemporary sexual mores, a feminist critique of double standards, and an homage to the great teen sex comedies of the '80s. It fails at all of these things, not because its reach exceeds its grasp, but because it's not reaching for much in the first place. The plot concerns a seventeen-year-old girl named Olive, who lies about having a date to avoid a friend, lies about losing her virginity on that date to impress that friend, is believed unquestioningly and turned into a "skank" in the minds of her entire high school overnight for reasons that remain unclear. She promptly begins to make bank on this whole implausible situation by allowing teen boys to lie about having sex with her in exchange for—for some reason—gift cards to major retail outlets. There's a promising story in here, somewhere: A happily raunchy and amoral tale about a girl cashing in on her sexuality, or a grim story about the psychological damage of slut-shaming, or a resounding rejection of the idea that virginity is every girl's most prized possession, or a satire of male sexual bravado. What we end up with, instead, is a mess; a story that tries to go in all of these directions, commits to none of them, and finally just plays it safe.

Olive, as it turns out, is one of those unbearable 17-year-old high school students who speak and think like 35-year-old screenwriters, saddled with the thankless task of pointing out to the audience exactly which parts of her own life are cliches and what movies her current situation might remind you of; sometimes, she even shows you clips. (Say Anything, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off: The references, they are not obscure.) And yet, Olive's finely-tuned cliché detector fails her when she's confronted with, for example, an arch-nemesis in the form of a perky blonde suck-up, or a teacher who's cooler than everyone else because he's quippy and understands the brilliance of Olive, or a sexless and nerdy South Asian student who speaks with a heavy accent, or a 17-year-old high school student who speaks and thinks like a 35-year-old screenwriter who won't stop reminding you of his superior knowledge of cliché. These, we are meant to find clever and winning.

Which is just a symptom of the larger problem: There's a hollowness to the movie, a cynicism and knowing cuteness that deflects all real emotional connection to its characters. It's drawn, not from life, but from the Quirky Indie Comedy Factory, Meta-Textual Division. And so it lovingly caresses the surfaces of, say, John Hughes movies, while never coming close to their spirit—which was precisely not about pointing out clichés, or flaunting one's self-awareness, but about trying to approximate how real live adolescents spoke and thought and felt, about trying to treat them as if they were whole people who might conceivably be interesting or important. One of the ways they did this was to acknowledge that their characters had sex—which is something that neither Olive, nor anyone else in this movie, ever manages to accomplish.

Strangely, as far as teen sexuality is concerned, Easy A is more conservative than the movies it references. The Breakfast Club, for example, is steeped in conversations about virginity and sexual activity, with the understanding that both are realistic options; Molly Ringwald ends up losing her virginity in a storage room, with a boy she's known for less than twenty-four hours and with whom she may never speak again, and it's clear that we're meant to find this both acceptable and romantic. In Say Anything, it's understood that Lili Taylor and the much-vaunted Joe (who lies; who lies, when he cries!) have had sex, and that this has not been her downfall, but just a part of growing up; later, Lloyd Dobler loses his virginity and receives no more serious lecture on What It All Means than a reminder that, once you've had sex with someone, you'll probably think about it whenever you see the person. Which is less about the precious gift of purity than it is a reminder of potential awkwardness, should you run into that someone at the grocery store. These movies have plenty of faults—casual racism, even more casual homophobia, soliloquies in which child abuse is presented largely as a matter of shouting, "No, Dad, WHAT ABOUT YOU" over and over until the Dad in question finally just succumbs to the urge to punch you—but reticence or judgment, when it comes to the matter of teen sex, isn't one of them.

Fast-forward several decades, and here we are, with Easy A, a teen sex comedy in which absolutely no-one, aside from two Very Bad People with chlamydia, is getting it on. Olive gets to give her big, loud, inspirational speech about how it is wrong to judge girls for having too much sex, or for having sex with the wrong people, while also revealing that she may not have sex with her one and only love interest until her "wedding night." Which is inspirational, until you consider the implications: That this movie is more comfortable with a good girl pretending to be a bad girl than it is with a real live girl, neither good nor bad, who's had some sex and been judged harshly for it. Sex is a political football, and a concept, and a threat, and a talking point; it's everything, in this movie, except for a reality. Which is a crying shame. Somewhere, in all of this well-meaning speechifying, there's a story. But Olive isn't its heroine. She couldn't be. What Easy A needs—what stories about girls and sex and shame need, generally—is a story, not about a good girl facing unjust punishment, but about a girl who had sex, and who faces consequences. Some good, some bad, and none of them the end of the world.