The To Do List
Opens Fri., July 26 at Sundance Cinemas and other theaters. Rated R. 104 minutes.
On the one hand, Aubrey Plaza seems too good, too smart for a summer raunch-com. From Parks and Recreation to Safety Not Guaranteed, her intelligence can read as caution or even diffidence: Here is a young woman who knows better than to expose awkwardness and vulnerability—often what sex is about. On the other hand, Aubrey Plaza is exactly what this summer raunch-com needs to set it apart from, and above, a genre that runs from Losin’ It to American Pie. It also helps that this teenager’s quest to get laid, a timeless theme at the movies, is related from the perspective of writer/director Maggie Carey, who grounds Plaza’s character, Brandy, in her own Boise adolescence.
Graduating from high school in 1993, valedictorian Brandy is a nerdy “mathlete” mocked for her virginity, with cleavage-heaving older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) her chief tormentor. Before college, Brandy vows, she will change all that. As if studying for an AP exam, she methodically writes down a list of half-understood sexual skills that will lead to punching her shameful V-card. Abetted by her more savvy pals (Sarah Steele and Alia Shawkat), she sets her sights on a hunky lifeguard (Scott Porter), meanwhile overlooking the dork who’s crushing on her (Johnny Simmons). Barely providing adult supervision over these horny teens is pool manager Willy (Bill Hader, the director’s husband). His slacker sage gives The To Do List a surprising overlap with The Way, Way Back—its protagonist also finding liberation among the pool-rats—only it’s way, way better. Sex here is a fumbling reality, not a dreamy abstraction.
Plaza is surprisingly game for the slapstick required—pratfalls, lost bikini tops, green vomit, and other inconvenient bodily fluids. Carey treats all her characters with good-natured forbearance, even Brandy’s hovering parents (Connie Britton and Clark Gregg). She understands that a decent teen comedy must include eeew!-inducing gross-outs, otherwise it’s got no credibility with the audience. Embarrassment defines those years; it’s the cement that locks everything else into memory—and provides a foundation for adulthood. And Carey isn’t above obvious jokes, as when Brandy bestows her first hand job at a screening of—get ready for it—The Firm.