[21 December 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s been quite a year for fresh faced actress Emma Stone. This time back in 2009, she was coming off successful co-starring stints in films like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Zombieland. Now, a mere 12 months later, she’s made her starring role debut, she’s seen her profile skyrocket, and has earned a Golden Globe nomination for her amazing work in said role. She’s even been cast as the female lead in the upcoming Spider-man reboot. What a difference a defining turn makes. Though she’s always been a spritely presence onscreen, an unconventionally attractive gal with chutzpah to match, 2010 is the year Stone comes into her own - and revisiting Easy A (now on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony), it’s not hard to see why.
Our plucky young starlet plays school smart-ass Olive Penderghast, the kind of cocky yet confident gal that boys like as best friends, not homecoming dates. Chatty and catty, she shares her pointed insights with buxom best buddy Rhiannon Abernathy (Alyson Michalka) and her ersatz uber-hip parents (Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson). Hoping to get out of a boring camping trip, Olive devises a date with a community college ‘boy’. One set of bragging sex-suggesting text messages later and she’s a school scandal. At first, her fake reputation is a godsend. It makes her instantly popular and part of the cool crowd. But when she helps out a couple of desperate and dateless friends - gay buddy Brandon (Dan Byrd) and resident fat kid Evan (Jameson Moss) - she peaks the interest of resident Christian busybody Marianne (Amanda Bynes), who makes this new ‘scarlet’ lady her new crusade.
There really is something sexy about a smart girl and Emma Stone’s turn is Easy A is easily the most intelligent portrayal of the trials and tribulations of a teenager since a mid ‘80s John Hughes went AWOL. The film itself is equally engaging, a quick witted comedy where literary illusions easily coexist beside contemporary pop culture asides. As an experiment in giving archetypes their comeuppance, Stone’s Olive is like a Woody Allen for the Pinkberry crowd. She takes down all the cliches, from the braindead BOMCs to the grating goody two shoes, the stoners, boners, and aggressive adult lotharios. Thanks to the precision writing of Bert V. Royal and the breezy direction of Will Gluck, what could have been cloying and contrived is instead wonderfully evocative of the rumor mongering peer pointlessness of being a 17-year-old kid.
Olive is indeed a heroine for a new millennium - part geek, part goddess, beyond the rules that used to drive gender role models but still hormonal enough to fall for infatuations many traps. She’s knowledgeable and empowered, testing the limits of her newfound if almost always ever-present self-esteem while still young enough to have serious doubts about said inner strength. She’s a woman in progress, a work whittled out of every bad magazine article and psychobabble primer of the last two decades, and within such a maelstrom of mixed signals, Stone never misses a beat. She is so good, so solid in her perceptions and playing of same that it’s no big surprise that she’s gained some awards season buzz. What is shocking is that it took so long for it to come.
Stone is not the only great thing about Easy A, however. The narrative, borrowing liberally from both real and fictional life, draws a damning portrait of high school, a world where pecking order place is far more important than individuality or personality. This is especially true when Olive becomes the sexual savior to several of the students. Granted, she does do an ethically questionable thing of demanding ‘payment’ for her falsified favors, but there is a greater good at hand. At the very worst, she’s a heroine to the unfairly picked upon and persecuted. She’s the bully cure, the kind of instant cred that few ever day during their four years of teen trauma.
But at her best, Olive is a grand and glorious role model, the kind of girl who doesn’t let the wrong-minded way women are treated in the world win her over. She argues for a telling, take charge approach, a mannerism which puts busybodies and gossips in their place. Sure, she has to learn the painful lessons that come with such conclusions, but in the end, Easy A makes the turmoil feel organic and necessary. In some ways, the movie is a like a microcosm of puberty - those awkward physiological changes that dictate one’s social status for years to come. With the wonderful byplay between the horndog best friend (Michalka makes the most of her chesty choices) and her clueless parents, Olive clearly understands the long road she has to hoe - and doesn’t really mind the labor.
For most in the audience, Easy A will simply be sensational, a wonderful homage to the genre, something the Blu-ray highlights in two intriguing featurettes. First up, “The School of Pop Culture” shows how many of the past efforts from the Greed Decade the film follows. The references move beyond the Breakfast Club basics to hint on some obscure choices. Then, we get a pop-up trivia track (among the many intriguing pieces of added content) that accentuates the already understood shout-outs, giving us interesting personal tidbits from the cast and crew. Indeed, what we learn from Easy A is that, while everyone’s experiences in high school may be far from universal, the films of the 1980s struck such a chord that it now seems like everyone’s time in homerun was a kind of communal detention. Even the popular players find things that resonate.
Yet in the end it is Stone that sells Easy A, making it one of 2010’s surprise successes. When you consider how horrid the whole teen comedy concept has become, when everything within the category centers around the crotch, toilet, and other forms of gross out gagging, this warm and witty winner is the perfect amiable antidote. Of course it occasionally trips over its own cleverness to come across as just a bit arrogant, and Stone does so much of the heavy lifting that it’s a shock when someone comes along to lend a hand (Amanda Bynes’ freaked out fundamentalist, for example), but when the career of this future superstar is written, biographers will go back to the moment when Emma Stone finally came into her own. 2010 was indeed the year, and Easy A was indeed the film.