Thursday, September 30, 2010

Easy A, or Hester Prynne Goes to High School

Easy A is a movie I wish I'd written. I don't mean that in an "I could have pooped out a better script than that" way; I genuinely wish I had written something as clever and heartfelt and, for a genre that nowadays is either smug and superior or dumb and offensive, a breath of fresh air.

"We've had nine classes together since Kindergarten... ten if you count Religion of Other Cultures, which you didn't because you called it science fiction and refused to go."

It feels too easy to say "If you liked Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You, you'll like this movie." I do think Easy A bears a resemblance to both those films, notably as another modern take on a literary classic (in this case, Nathaniel Hawthorne's short novel The Scarlet Letter). But in a way I find it more satisfying than either of them. Yes, even more than Clueless, which has been the standard bearer for cute and smarter-than-you'd-think teen comedies lo these (*gulp*) fifteen years. What Easy A brings to the table are some surprisingly nuanced performances and a knack for the dynamics of high school that is frankly unnerving.

Here are the basics of the plot. Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone, in what is sure to be a breakout role) is an average high school chick, practically invisible to boys. To avoid an uncomfortable camping weekend with her best friend and said friend's naturist parents, she makes up a college guy out of thin air and says she has a date with him that weekend. After her actual boring weekend at home, she forgets about her lie until the friend asks her how the date went. Through a series of unfortunate accidents in tale-spinning, she "confesses" to having slept with her sockpuppet boyfriend. She is overheard by her ultra-conservative classmate, Marianne (Amanda Bynes, in her last role before bizarrely "retiring" from acting at age 24). Marianne starts the rumor mill a-spinning, and pretty soon Olive has a Reputation. There's an almost chilling scene in which Olive walks the hall after the rumor spreads, and the reaction of the two genders could not be more telling, and it makes me sad that slut shaming is still a thing in this day and age. With her perceived virtue essentially in the toilet, then, she agrees to pretend to have sex with a gay friend of hers, so that he can get a reprieve from the homophobic bullies who are plaguing him. Things spiral from there, and soon she's practically running a service, selling her pretend sex favors to various guys for various reasons.

There's a good bit of homage to great teen movies of yore, particularly those of John Hughes, and there's a self-awareness that just works, as if the movie itself is saying to you that it wants to be as good as those other movies, while humbly aw-shucks-ing that it never will be. This is mostly achieved by Olive's webcam narration, and Emma Stone reminded me oddly of Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - only more coherent and less scatterbrained. I've been a fan of Emma Stone's for a few years now - I guess since Superbad - and I sincerely think this movie could put her on the map in a big way. I've heard musings about her possible Oscar chances, which might sound ridiculous, but I'll go ahead and say that she's at least going to the Golden Globes. She's really incredible, and it's a strangely empowering female role. On the surface, Olive is sacrificing her good name, moving herself down the social ladder so that several boys can move up. But it's not really like that at all. Olive takes charge of her sexuality, without even having sex. She owns it and doesn't let what people will think of her dictate what she does (or falsely admits doing). Because, at the end of the day, it's nobody's business but her own. The whole controversy surrounding her is ridiculous, and every lie she tells is another riff in an epic joke.

Also, as a person of faith, I was pleasantly surprised at the portrayal of the school's little Christian clique. The prayer circle especially tickled me, because what a lot of Christians call "prayer requests" are really just gossip and group judgment sessions.

Performance-wise, in addition to the awesome Emma Stone, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci are wonderful as Olive's groovy and totally cool parents. Thomas Haden Church is pretty great as Olive's favorite teacher. Lisa Kudrow is delightful as the school guidance counselor who has serious issues of her own. And there are some really outstanding little parts, especially for Olive's, ah, clients. The script really explores sexual politics in fascinating ways, especially with a couple of guys who illustrate that a lot of times it's not the fact that a guy is a nerd that makes him unattractive. Sometimes the guy is just a jerk.

If you haven't already seen this, I highly recommend it. I think it has more to say about young adulthood and gender roles than just about any of its contemporaries.

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