Movie review by Greg Carlson
Writer-director Maggie Carey’s feature film debut “The To Do List” has received attention for gender-inverting the common masculinity of the “pursuit of sexual experience” trope that has fueled the plots of several raunchy comedies including “Porky’s,” “The Last American Virgin,” and “American Pie.” “The To Do List” is not the first rite-of-passage movie to be shared from the perspective of a female protagonist – “Little Darlings,” “Stealing Beauty,” “Juno,” and “18-Year-Old Virgin” represent a range of tones and agendas – but Carey’s unapologetic heroine Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), is so matter of fact about wanting to understand and acquire carnal knowledge on her own terms that the film has been called both “fake feminist” by Rafer Guzman and “radically feminist” by Inkoo Kang.
Carey, who wrote the screenplay on spec before it ended up on Franklin Leonard’s influential Black List survey, met Plaza in an Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre class and cast the future “Parks and Recreation” performer in a web series called “The Jeannie Tate Show.” In “The To Do List,” Plaza continues to hone her deadpan style, but overachieving valedictorian Brandy is considerably less sarcastic and cynical than April Ludgate. Brandy shares some movie DNA with Ione Skye’s Diane Court from teen hallmark “Say Anything…” and even though Skye was age-appropriately cast as a high school graduate, one of the gags of “The To Do List” is the “Beverly Hills, 90210”-style use of performers ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-30s as teenagers.
Set in Carey’s high school graduation year of 1993, “The To Do List” uses that specific date to mine music and fashion nostalgia as well as provide a framework for a plot that simply could not exist once Internet search engines began to provide instant access to definitions and illustrations of any and every possible sexual behavior. Brandy’s quest to check off the likes of French kissing, motorboating, hand jobs, pearl necklaces, dry humping, and cunnilingus (outside of a committed relationship and with multiple partners) will vex certain conservatives opposed to what might be perceived as the movie’s permissive/progressive affirmation of sex positivity. On the way from “straight A’s to getting her first F,” as the double-entendre of the trailer puts it, Brandy may very well challenge Kathryn Schwartz’s argument that virginity is a “vehicle for misogyny.”
Pursuers of raucous comedy and onscreen vulgarity will find many opportunities to laugh, although Carey mostly steers clear of using Brandy’s rendezvous for the most graphic jests. Instead, an errant bikini top and a gross-out tribute to the Baby Ruth scene from juggernaut “Caddyshack” provide Brandy’s biggest humiliations. Surely it is no accident that Carey constructs “The To Do List” in a way that tries to depict a contextual authenticity for Brandy’s sexual roadmap. The most compelling example of this occurs during the intercourse that Brandy imagines will conclude her homework: she has the presence of mind to be on top to increase the likelihood of orgasm.
The most disappointing dimension of “The To Do List” is the borderline apathetic treatment of the talented secondary cast members. Brandy’s BFFs, played by Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele, importantly avoid slut-shaming their curious pal, even though Shawkat’s Fiona lashes out with the S-word in anger and humiliation when she feels betrayed by one of Brandy’s particularly clueless moves. Fiona and Steele’s Wendy are never developed beyond slight and flimsy approximations of self-actualized persons, and the lack of meaningfully communicated interpersonal relationships prevents the film from achieving the kind of richness and depth of character associated with the 1980s movies of John Hughes.