Photo: ‘Sex Appeal’
In the last decade, there has been a push to represent a more authentic teenage experience, especially through the lens of a strong female protagonist. Films like ‘Booksmart’ and shows such as ‘Sex Education’ explore themes of sexuality and sexual experience with tenderness without sacrificing humor. Others, like ‘Euphoria’ or ‘Gossip Girl’ also explore high school students experiencing various life events, although with significantly more melodrama and a bit more romanticization of a very awkward time in life.
Most recently, the new Hulu film ‘Sex Appeal’ attempts to do the same while adding their own originality. While there are aspects of the film that work, it ultimately falls flat when compared to others within its genre.
‘Sex Appeal’ – A Mission To Make The First Time Perfect
Avery Hansen-White does her best to avoid things that she isn’t excellent at. Her perfectionist tendencies have helped her get into MIT on a full ride and made her a science genius, but it’s also kept her from participating in normal aspects of teen life. This doesn’t bother her though since she sees academic success as her priority. She even won last year’s STEMcon, a national competition for high schoolers excelling in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Coincidentally this was also where she met her long-distance super-smart and super-handsome boyfriend Casper.
When Casper suggests that they “take things to the next level” at the upcoming STEMcon, Avery begins to panic. She doesn’t know the first thing about sex. In fact, sex education is the one class that Avery disregards, including an implausible beef between her and the teacher. “Part of the film’s humor is attributed to Avery’s profound lack of understanding surrounding the male or female body, which is confusing when considering her scientific savvy, and borderline preposterous given the constant sex-positivity that her three moms have spewed at her since she was a tot. At one point, Danica McCollum (Paris Jackson) teaches Avery how to masturbate, and the latter’s utter incredulity makes me doubt that she has ever even cracked open a science textbook, let alone is on the path to becoming one of the world’s leading STEM scholars,” reviewed Paste Magazine.
Like all classic teen movies, the solution is offered to her in the form of an assignment. The competition’s prompt is announced and it is to solve a personal problem with the help of an app they create. Avery searches through resources, her peers, and any sources she can to build her AI that will help improve any sexual experience. The problem is, she can’t make an app that she knows nothing about.
She seeks out her oldest friend Larson who has helped her with nearly every experiment before then and asks him to act as a test subject to gather data. Larson tries to decline her offer since he was previously rejected by her, but eventually, Avery convinces him.
While there were some undeniable shortcomings, there were still aspects that succeeded in telling this story. According to Paste Magazine, “A great deal of Sex Appeal’s appeal lies in its high-concept premise. A teenager who approaches losing her virginity like coding Java enhances the scientific makeup of a film that already has many elements of a successful comedy: A racy goal, huge margin for comical errors and mishaps, and a core that bubbles with romantic potential.”
For one thing, many of the characters on screen were enjoyable. Jake Short who played Larson was entirely endearing as the male lead. He is charming in a way that makes you root for him, possibly even more than Avery (played by Mika Abdalla). Their chemistry together brings out a lot of good in her and balances her stressful energy. There were also several smaller roles of other students that had great one-liners and added a fun unexpected dialogue.
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Even though having Avery have three lesbian mothers in her life was a bit heavy-handed, it did work thanks to the comedic prowess of Fortune Feimster, Margaret Cho, and Rebecca Henderson. While they offered Avery support and non-judgemental advice, their own sexual identity was a tool used for humor. It was as if to say of course Avery doesn’t know anything about male/female anatomy, she has three moms and one of them “makes vagina paintings that would make Georgia O’Keefe blush”! Even though they are sex-positive, to the point of crossing boundaries with their teen daughter, the three women worked as a cohesive and hilarious unit and were perhaps the most delightfully funny roles in the whole film, which is more of a testament to the actresses talent than anything else.
The Not So Good
‘Sex Appeal’ was not a perfect film, I’ll admit that. In fact, I wouldn’t even say it was the best of a subgenre of teen sex comedies in the last few years. There were several challenges working against it. For one thing, it relied heavily on overused and frankly cheesy tropes. Even within the opening scene which starts off with a voice-over… a “You may be wondering how I got here” type of thing. As a movie snob, there are rare times when I think this cliche adds anything to the story.
Other overly used and easy to guess plot lines include the boy’s best friend turned lover, the sexually experienced older girl, and a girl that’s smarter than all the other ones, so smart that she never learned how to be a normal teenager. According to Screenrant, “‘Sex Appeal’ is a film that struggles on two fronts: It plays with a new set of archetypes and conventions that have been better articulated in other projects and there is too much of an emphasis on making a quirky and stylized teen sex comedy that character development for its lead gets left behind.”
Avery does not act as a necessarily sympathetic protagonist which is perhaps the biggest fault. She may be smart in science, but she has avoided ever learning a social queue in her life. She storms into multiple classrooms and announces her desires point-blank, a sentiment that helps drive the story forward but takes away any sense of restraint or reality. “Instead of portraying Avery as a normal teen who is nervous about her first sexual exploit (a very normal affliction), director Talia Osteen and screenwriter Tate Hanyok reduce her to a caricature—a decision born most likely from the knowledge that a character with cartoonishly clear wants, goals and personality traits will make the film’s message more easily decipherable,” reviewed Paste Magazine.
In lieu of depicting any of the escapades Avery goes on, the film instead opts for campy visuals standing in as metaphors. I thought in parts that this was creative and a fun way to make it more appropriate for a younger audience. On the other hand, some critics rightfully argued that it took away from the central message.
If the film is about a young woman taking charge of her sexuality, then having cheesy allusions to sex feels a bit contradictory. “This whole area of human existence is treated as something that could have been avoided by Avery entirely if not for Casper, and thus a nuisance, a choice and, ultimately, something dirty… The movie caters to a pre-adolescent sense of humor while pretending to be sexually enlightened,” wrote The Wall Street Journal.
An Entertaining Watch, But There’s Better Out There
This is not to say that the film wasn’t an enjoyable and entertaining watch, because it was. However, if you’re in search of a movie exploring a young person’s sexuality or discovering oneself, this isn’t the best example. In fact, it’s been a pretty common theme for numerous amazing projects within the last decade.
“With so much of her character development defined by narration, the audience is left with a rather hollow lead. And without an evocative central character, the whole film falls apart. There is a need for more films and TV shows led by complicated and nuanced young women and girls. Sex Appeal has good intentions and good instincts, but a lack of nuance torpedoes the whole endeavor. Perhaps Hulu’s latest will find an audience willing to accept it with its flaws, or perhaps most people will feel inclined to watch something better,” reviewed Screenrant.
The heart was there and there were solid bones to this film including a pretty strong comedic cast, a fun lighthearted plot, and moments of well-written humor, but it wasn’t enough to bring it up to the standards of others like it. It’s a fun flick about the taboos of young sex and sexuality, and if you enjoyed this you are sure to enjoy others like it just as much if not more.
Director: Talia Osteen
Writer: Tate Hanyok
Starring: Mika Abdalla, Jake Short, Paris Jackson, Margaret Cho, Alex D. Jennings, Fortune Feimster, Rebecca Henderson
By Kylie Bolter
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