The coming-of-age teen sex comedy has long been a fixture in theaters. We might trace the genre’s rise from the early 1980s, when Risky Business launched Tom Cruise’s career and Porky’s defined the formula, namely, adolescent males seek sex. Each endures a series of bawdy encounters that result in his humiliation. Those episodes typically involve drinking, boys bonding, and young women taking off their tops. After a series of false starts, the boys are able to consummate their desire. She may or may not have a name, and may or may not have appeared topless. For the boy, losing his virginity is a triumphant moment without repercussions.
The To Do List is a straight-up teenage sex comedy. It sticks close to the rules, which have evolved recently, thanks to American Pie and Superbad, to include a calculated mix of raunchy and sweet. As usual, the partying is rowdy, the pursuit of sex is eager, and the supporting cast is largely interchangeable. And, like one of the most memorable permutations of the genre, 1995’s Clueless, the teenager on the quest to have sex is a girl.
Brandy Clark (Aubrey Plaza) is a high-achieving valedictorian who always keeps a to do list. Of course, per the conventions of the genre, she is an awkward virgin who would rather go home than to a keg party after graduation. When her friends, Wendy (Sarah Steele) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat), force her to go to the party, she finds herself engaged in a very brief make-out session with a hunky guitar player who mistakes her for someone. The misunderstanding leads Brandy to something of a revelation: gee, she has a few things to learn about sex and romance. And so she’s inspired to write up a new to do list, filled with various acts she means to experience over the summer before heading to college.
The R rating is common for teen sex comedies these days, and the The To Do List more than earns its during the scene when Brandy writes up her list, with items ranging from uncomfortable to gross. None of these items quite achieves the surprise factor of classic teen sex comedy bits (like, say, humping a defenseless apple pie), but many are quite funny, largely due to Plaza’s willingness to sell the physical comedy completely.
This willingness certainly helps Maggie Carey’s movie maintain a certain energy and forward motion, this even as it resists the generic imperative to show women’s breasts. This resistance is consistent with the underlying message of The To Do List, which is that girls can be empowered and gain confidence from becoming sexually active. It’s an unusual message in mainstream movies, and one that might reassess how common it is in movies about boys. In The To Do List, girls are confused teenagers grappling with the complex emotional and physical minefield of sex.
If The To Do List is not the first comedy about teenage sex with a female lead, it may be the first to approach the subject without a corresponding morality lesson. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) focuses on Stacy’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) efforts to have sex, but is not exactly kind to her, as she struggles through a resulting pregnancy and even an abortion. Another great movie, 2007’s Juno, focuses on what happens after sex, not before, as Juno (Ellen Page) is not only pregnant but also decides to give up baby for adoption. And Easy A follows Olive (Emma Stone), who pretends to be promiscuous and is then ostracized by her classmates. The point in this case is that even lying about sex can have dire consequences for teenage girls.
The To Do List is fundamentally different. Brandy endures many humiliating incidents during her quest to lose her virginity, but she is never judged or punished for wanting to have sex. She undergoes no public shaming, even when others learn about her to do list. Brandy does not get pregnant or contract an STD. She’s able to talk with her mother (Connie Britton), who encourages her to use a lubricant. Brandy makes her own decisions and does not regret them, even when she gets caught in so-called compromising positions. The consequences for Brandy emerge when she’s insensitive to her friends, not because of anyone else’s preconceived ideas about what she should or should not be doing. It may be that with The To Do List, the teen sex comedy is also coming of age.