D: Maggie Carey / 104m
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, Rachel Bilson, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover
High school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Plaza) is a straight-A student who’s looking forward to going off to college. She’s fiercely intelligent, studious and focused, but when her two best friends, Fiona (Shawkat) and Wendy (Steele) coerce her into attending a party, the sight of blonde beefcake Rusty (Porter) awakens feelings in her that she’s never experienced before. That night she gets drunk for the first time, and when Rusty comes into the room where she’s trying to sleep it off, he mistakes her for someone else. They start making out, but Brandy’s reaction stops Rusty short. He apologises and leaves. Confused by her newfound feelings, Brandy seeks advice from her older sister, Amber (Bilson). Astonished that Brandy has no sexual experience at all, Amber tells her that she needs to address the issue before she gets to college. In order to do so, Brandy compiles a list of sexual acts to experience over the course of the summer.
While she begins to put her plan into action, Brandy works at an outdoor swimming pool. On her first day she finds that Rusty works there too, as well as her friend Cameron (Simmons). Cameron wants to be her boyfriend but he’s too shy to ask her out. Brandy also meets their boss, Willy (Hader), who it transpires, is homeless and lives on site. Brandy flirts with Rusty who appears bemused by the attention, while at the same time she begins her voyage of sexual exploration, co-opting a willing Cameron into the process, and giving him the impression that she has feelings for him. But for Brandy, becoming sexually experienced is treated like a school project, and she approaches each sex act with an air of detachment. As she ticks off each item on her list, she begins to discover that sex can cause a lot of problems she wouldn’t previously have considered.
Soon, word gets round about her list. One of Cameron’s friends, Duffy (Mintz-Plasse) takes advantage of Brandy’s curiosity, as does her co-worker Derrick (Glover). She also hooks up with a rock singer called Van (Samberg) at the pool, but though she’s able to tick off one more sexual practice, she’s interrupted by Willy, who’s horrified by Brandy and her friends’ behaviour. And when Cameron discovers what’s been going on he refuses to have anything further to do with her. When Fiona tells Brandy that she’d like to date Cameron, Brandy’s confusion over her feelings leads to a breakdown in her relationship with Fiona and Wendy. Undeterred though, Brandy forges ahead with her plan, and finally plucks up the courage to ask Rusty on a date, a date where she plans to tick off one experience in particular: losing her virginity.
Anchored by a fearless performance from Aubrey Plaza – watch the masturbation scene to see just how fearless – The To Do List is a raucous, raunchy, pull-no-punches look at female sexual instruction and empowerment. Maggie Carey’s screenplay often finds itself very near the knuckle (though it does depend on where that knuckle is at the time), and paints a uniquely female perspective on the ups and downs of early sexual experiences. Through the character of Brandy, Carey’s script skewers some probable misconceptions about female sexuality, and provides an object lesson in the differences between the sexes. It’s scabrously funny at times, with much of the humour arising from Brandy’s unfamiliarity with certain sexual techniques (“What’s a rim job? Guess I’ll have to ask at the library”), and the posturing that teenagers adopt in order to look and feel more adult.
If you’re one of those teenagers then this movie is going to feel a lot like a documentary, but there’s enough staple rom-com ingredients to help allay any fears that this is going to end up abandoning subtlety at the side of the road and being cruder than a turd in a swimming pool – oh, hang on, there is one (and Brandy takes a bite out of it). And yet, while the movie appears to be a distaff relation to the American Pie series, it retains a sweet, harmless core that makes some of the more questionable moments easier to accept and deal with. Again, this is largely due to Carey’s clever, balanced script, and the familiarity of seeing teenagers pretending to be adults while getting it completely wrong.
In the lead role, Plaza shows once again why she’s one of the best young(-ish) actresses around – it’s hard to believe but she was twenty-nine when The To Do List was released. She takes great care in making Brandy as credibly naïve as possible, even to the point that she’s never had any amorous feelings until she sets eyes on Rusty (what have she and her friends been talking about all this time?). With that battle won, her studious, almost lab-based approach to discovering sex is presented in such a witty and laugh out loud way that it’s no surprise that the viewer ends up rooting for her, even when things start to go wrong through her own intransigence.
The rest of the cast take turns in sharing the glory of Plaza’s performance, with Hader (in real life, Carey’s husband) coming off best as the slightly seedy, sometimes cruel Willy, unaverse to making fun of Brandy’s boobs (or lack of them), and yet paternal and supportive when confronting her over her “experiment” with Van. While there isn’t one horrible person in the whole movie, Willy comes closest thanks to the scene where he encourages boob jokes at Brandy’s expense, and it’s the one scene in the whole movie that feels out of place. Elsewhere, Brandy’s verbal battles with Amber are ambitiously aggressive, and Plaza and Bilson are clearly revelling in spitting out so much bile at each other. Porter exudes surf dude manliness with ease, Simmons does awkward adolescent with aplomb, Mintz-Plasse does would-be Lothario with gusto, and Gregg is terrific as Brandy’s dad, a judge for whom any talk of sex is embarrassing and unnerving.
Some viewers, inevitably, will take issue with some of the more ruder content, but this is less about sex and more about finding oneself through sex, and becoming a more rounded person. As Cameron says towards the end, “sometimes sex is just sex”, and as a judicious summing up of what’s gone before, it’s entirely accurate. And the beauty of this movie is that it knows it as surely as finger-banging is really known as finger-blasting… or is it finger-bombing…?
Rating: 8/10 – a delight from start to finish and one that doesn’t patronise either its characters or its audience, The To Do List is one of the more honest movies about sex you’re ever likely to see; funny, compassionate, disarming, and defiantly rude, it’s some of the best fun you can have with your clothes on.