June Diane Raphael
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
Blockers April 24, 2018
couple weeks ago, the actress Molly Ringwald wrote an op-ed for The New Yorker that considered how the legacies of her collaborations with the indelible writer and director John Hughes have changed in the age of #MeToo. In the piece, which deftly balances introspection with additional analyses of the sexual and cultural mores of the 1980s, Ringwald ultimately comes to the conclusion that, while films like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Pretty in Pink (1986) are undeniably important parts of the teen movie zeitgeist, their problematic attitudes toward women, race, and sex are items
that have not aged well.
Hughes’ most celebrated films are ineradicable facets of the teen flick lexicon, and yet I’ve found over the years that I’ve come to prefer modern examples of the form. From Mean Girls (2004) and Easy A (2010), to The Spectacular Now (2013) and The Edge of Seventeen (2016), present-day teen movies — at least the better examples — retain Hughes’ pathos and his willingness to empathize with his central characters while keeping belittlement to a minimum.
Blockers, an unanticipatedly excellent teen sex comedy released a handful of Fridays ago, feels like a response to what Ringwald discussed in her The New Yorker article: It plays out like an '80s classic without all the denigration. It is a progressive, remarkably intelligent vision, where the laughs are still big and bawdy and the heart is still hefty but where nobody is undermined or devalued in the process.
Marking the directorial debut of Kay Cannon, who’s best known for her work on the Pitch Perfect films (2012-’17) and a five-year stint as a writer and producer on 30 Rock (2006-’13), Blockers is about a group of parents (Leslie Mann, Ike Barinholtz, and John Cena, an unpredictably blue-ribbon comedy dream team) who inadvertently discover that their daughters (Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon, and Geraldine Viswanathan) have made a pact to lose their virginities on prom night. The film, a tight 102 minutes, watches in delight as they attempt to sabotage their kids’ attempts to get deflowered.
Although the plot itself sounds as though it might fit comfortably into the set of features Ringwald talked about in her essay, most of the characters featured in Blockers are vocally (if sometimes preachily) critical of the parents’ antics. Barinholtz, a deadbeat dad who gets dragged into the shenanigans simply because he was close to Mann and Cena back in the day, endlessly excoriates his companions for refusing to let their daughters be autonomous. And Cena’s wife, played by Sarayu Blue, is horrified when she finds out about the imprudent scheme, quick to remind everyone how warped it is that a girl is considered out of control if she wants to lose her virginity while a boy with the same ambition is simply being a boy.
Cannon and her screenwriters, Brian and Jim Kehoe, ensure that the movie never undermines these girls, either. Sure they’re impulsive and quick to forget just how bad the yucky after-effects of too much pre-gaming can be. But they’re smart, know exactly what they want, and can handle themselves. Early lunchtime conversations featured in the film deliciously subvert the idea that teenage boys are uniformly the ones engaging in showy, gasp-inducing sex talk, and it’s handled delightfully. (The writing’s sharp, but these young actresses, especially Viswanathan, have great comedic timing, too.)
What I like so much about Blockers, then, is its proving that you can make a ribald sex comedy crawling with gross-out gags — there’s beer butt-chugging, a quasi-car chase characterized by much projectile vomiting, and two riotous interruptions of inventive sexual roleplaying — that respects women, is diverse and accepting, and is intent on presenting comedy that’s manic without being mean-spirited. It even manages to sneak in a touching, sensitively rendered coming-out story for the closeted Adlon character.
It’s sneakily outstanding. Because it’s very much of the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg brand (they co-produced it), we first might think of it as just another satisfyingly crass comedy that keeps us temporarily handicapped by our fits of laughter. But in certain moments, namely the ones where sexist and misogynist standards get called out, I’d begin thinking about the teen movie genre overarchingly in my comfy theater seat. Then I’d come to remember that entries as deferential and socially conscious as Blockers are few and far between. I'd say, then, that it's notable progress for a genre that’s had to reinvent itself over and over again with the changing times. It sets a new precedent. B+
This review also appeared in The Daily.