Funny, Feminine To Do List a Promiscuous Pleasure
The To Do List doesn’t do anything unexpected. It doesn’t tell a story where the outcome is unknown. Where it is groundbreaking, however, and where it is different, is in the depiction of its protagonist, 18-year-old High School valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza). What could have been just your normal everyday teenage coming of age sex comedy ends up becoming something more thanks in large part to the switch in gender, newbie writer/director Maggie Carey delivering a smart, sexy, flippant, vulgar, honest and, yes, funny debut in the process.
The basics aren’t any more involved than those found in American Pie. It’s 1993, and organized, reserved, somewhat judgmental and highly opinionated Boise, ID high school graduate Brandy has come to the conclusion she’s not ready for college. Intellectually speaking all is fine, she’s got the smarts department covered, but sexually the young woman feels especially deficient, the teen so driven to get the highest GPA in the history of her school district she never took the time to discover where a single one of her own personal erogenous zones might be located. Much to the amusement of her two best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), as well as her far more promiscuous, about to be married older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), she creates a to-do list of sexual adventures to complete over the summer, the last of which involves losing her cherry to none other than sexy community pool lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).
Familiar stuff, and it isn’t like Carey’s debut is exploring stories or situations that haven’t been mined in both film and television numerous times before. But by centering things around Brandy, by allowing viewers inside the confines of her friendships with Fiona and Wendy, by lowering the boom on her relationship with her sister Amber, the director is able to showcase discussions and conversations that feel fresh and new. There is a level of authenticity that goes beyond the four-letter words, innuendo and more unseemly sight gags, a freshness that somehow manages to make a young girl coating her hand in butter to better facilitate someone else’s unexpected orgasm amusingly, and somewhat bizarrely, innocent.
It helps that Plaza owns the film, making Brandy’s transformation poignant and personal no matter how degrading an act she might be choosing to commit might initially appear to be. The “Parks and Recreation” and Safety Not Guaranteed scene-stealer impresses, turning in a layered, surprisingly emotional and entirely committed performance that had me grinning ear-to-ear. I never knew what she was going to do or say next, how her conversations with Bilson, so good as her haughty, yet still somewhat insecure, older sibling, Bill Hader (shockingly terrific as her slacker boss, Willy, manager of the neighborhood’s community pool) Johnny Simmons (Brandy’s former classmate and lab partner who desperately wishes to be so much more than that) and both Shawkat and Steele would turn out. It’s a nimble bit of acting, Plaza light on her feet exploring her character’s in ways that are oftentimes completely unexpected, giving the movie additional resonance it otherwise would not have had.
I can’t say it’s perfect, and as impressed with The To Do List as I am Carey doesn’t always avoid or rise above the genre conventions she’s gleefully attempting to subvert. There aren’t any shocks, no real surprises as far as any of the outcomes are concerned, Brandy’s attempts to remove emotion and feeling from her sexual explorations unquestionably going to backfire. Additionally, while I appreciate the director’s willingness to get as nasty and as extreme as the boys do in their gigantic catalog of similarly themed endeavors (the list is massive, the best ones you already know, so there’s no use name-dropping them again now), there were a couple of gross-out moments I found more sick than sickly hilarious, and honestly I’m not sure they were altogether necessary.
But the bottom line, and really all that matters, is that this story works because it trusts both its audience and its characters, adding layers of intelligence and subtext most films of this sort typically eschew. While Carey gets the mood, the ambiance, the era and, most of all, the music just right, she never lets any of that overshadow the path Brandy has set out for herself, reveling in her friendships in ways we rarely see cinematically explored. The To Do List isn’t a great comedy, but it is a very, very good one, and as far as 2013 goes it’s on my personal list of movies I can’t wait to see again.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)