“John Hughes did not direct my life,” Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) says near the beginning of Easy A. And yet, this teenage no-sex comedy wants nothing more than to be a John Hughes movie.
More specifically, it wants to be a John Hughes movie based on The Scarlet Letter, as Olive reveals that she has been ostracized by her classmates after she pretends she’s had sex when she really hasn’t. But the more pertinent cultural references for Easy A are Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and other ‘80s angsty teenager classics. Like Molly Ringwald’s Samantha in Sixteen Candles, Olive has no reputation at all. When she makes up a boyfriend to avoid admitting to her best friend Rhiannon (Alyson Michalka) that she blew her off over the weekend, her friend misinterprets her lies as an admission that she is no longer a virgin. Through a highly unlikely chain of events, the girls are overheard in the bathroom and soon the entire school thinks that Olive has lost her virginity. For the first time ever, people are talking about Olive. She likes it, and so, instead of refuting the rumor, she decides to fuel it.
At first blush, it seems ridiculous that a girl in our internet-saturated society could get a reputation based only on a suggestion that she’s had sex once. But Easy A makes a compelling case that, in the mosh-pit that is high school, any step out of line can lead to a change in standing. Of greater interest, however, is its own status, as a movie where not all teenagers are preternaturally worldly and perpetually horny. Though the prevailing media winds indicate that sex is as instinctual as breathing for the average 15-year-old, the reality is that it has always been and continues to be a mysterious and confusing concept, for teens as much as anyone.
Lying about sex is the connection between Easy A and The Scarlet Letter, however strained. Hester Prynne never had much fun wearing her letter, while Olive enjoys her trip through the rumor mill, for a while at least, even turning the trademark A into a fashion accessory. Easy A is sly enough to have her assert in one of her voice-over asides that films are known for trying to make classic literature “relevant” to the high school experience.
Here, such relevance is shaped by a suggestion that Puritanism is to blame for Olive’s situation. The initial rumors are spread by Marianne (Amanda Bynes), a pastor’s daughter who leads a group of evangelical students at the high school. Her obvious likeness to Mandy Moore in Saved begins and ends with her role as Olive’s adversary. The movie forgets that the leader of an overtly religious clique in a highly secular school is far more likely to be ostracized than the girl everyone thinks is having sex.
Luckily, the majority of Easy A doesn’t belabor the literary source text and instead channels its true spiritual godfather, John Hughes, which makes for a much more fun movie. Stone gives a delightful performance that puts her in line to become this generation’s Ringwald.
Easy A is sprinkled with nods to Hughes, right down to the judicious use of songs by the Thompson Twins (“If You Were Here”) and Simple Minds (“Don’t You Forget About Me”) as well as iconic images (Judd Hirsch’s raised fist and John Cusack holding the boom-box over his head). Some references are subtler but equally satisfying: when Olive gives her underwear to a guy she just pretended to sleep with, you can’t help but think about Ringwald giving her panties to a clueless Anthony Michael Hall 25 years earlier.
Watching Hughes’ universe, teenagers could see themselves on screen pretty much as they thought of themselves. He respected his young characters and their struggles to define their own identities without interference from the adults in their lives. As Olive’s parents, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson fill that blandly benevolent role in Easy A and still manage to provide many of the movie’s funniest moments. (Her dad is particularly inspired: in one scene, he declares that forcing everyone in the family to watch The Bucket List allows him to cross the movie off his bucket list.)
Olive’s own best moments are alternately funny and poignant. Self-aware and brilliantly articulate, like so many kids in Hughes’ movies, she learns a standard sort of lesson, to take control of her own image even if she makes some mistakes along the way. Taking a couple of pages out of the Ferris Bueller playbook, she engages in an impromptu musical number and eventually triumphs, despite teetering on the edge of disaster for the entire film.