Back in 2001 during the SXSW Film Festival, I was sitting at the original Alamo Drafthouse in Austin waiting for a movie to start when I noticed two filmmakers to the left of me whose film I had enjoyed a couple nights before. Maggie Carey and Elena Carr, two graduate students at the University of Texas at the time, couldn’t have been more gracious, the latter wanting to strike up a conversation about what I had seen and while I wanted to slip in some praise for their film, it was slightly awkward to do so without sounding tawdry, given that their hilarious documentary “Ladyporn” was about the staging of an amateur porn film filmed from a feminist perspective. Still, I tried and mere nanoseconds after I began to say how funny it was, Carey quickly swatted away the compliment to ask, “Well, did you think we succeeded?”
She wasn’t referring to the quality of the film as a whole, but the integrity of the porn for women – the quandary the two filmmakers faced when making something hardcore yet flew in the face of an entire medium dominated in every respect by men. I admitted to them I didn’t know since beyond the inclusion of more female-pleasing acts, it didn’t feel right as a Y-chromosome bearer to say. But I did find it funny as hell, especially at the idea of finding equality in such a lowly regarded area as adult entertainment, so it was with great interest that I heard a decade later that Carey would be making her narrative feature debut with “The To Do List,” a comedy that is quite possibly raunchier than “Ladyporn” even if there’s 100% less graphic imagery and one that if asked again if it was a success, I’d respond with a resounding yes.
There’s no such moan of pleasure to be heard from its main character Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), which in fact is why there’s a story to be told. A class valedictorian who hasn’t yet lost her virginity, Brandy spends her summer before college aiming to study up on sexual positions with the same zeal as she attacked AP calculus before she hits campus, quickly learning that reading up on cunnilingus and motor boating will only take her so far before she has to engage in live practice to figure it out. Set in the ’90s, the film gets the benefit of both an unmistakable authenticity when it comes to depicting the era, complete with a soundtrack filled with Pavement, Liz Phair and Elastica, and a blissful lack of the Internet to cloud her judgment.
Then again, she has a parade of willing partners to do that, from the doe-eyed classmate Cameron (Johnny Simmons) who’s long been relegated to the friend zone to the bad boy lifeguard Rusty (Scott Porter) who’s been the subject of her chaste fantasies with other random dudes played by Andy Samberg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Donald Glover mixed in for fun. While these encounters, which generally end in horrifically embarrassing fashion, provide the barest of plot on which to hang comic setups, Brandy’s summer of sexual awakening is unusually rich as a subversive coming-of-age tale.
Inexperienced but hardly lacking confidence, Brandy is a rare creature in the movies, able to gradually discover her sexuality on her own terms without shame and ultimately empowered by it. Undoubtedly, some of the bravado is a byproduct of Carey and Plaza’s relationship, which dates back to when the former directed the “Parks and Rec” star in “The Jeannie Tate Show,” the web series that first put Plaza on the map, resulting in a trust that has Plaza going all the way in Brandy’s overanalyzed attempts to do the same. While Plaza definitely plays to the brittle persona that’s become her trademark, she holds nothing back in all the physical comedy that’s required and is given dimension by a sterling supporting cast and a script which is constantly rebelling against expectations, not content to revel in the awkwardness of the actions taken by its horny teens, but to honestly consider their ramifications.
Still, “The To Do List” is less likely to elicit deep thought than it is deep, guttural laughs and because it delivers, it takes attention away from what appears to be a very low budget and an overreliance on pop cultural ephemera to cover the trail. Instead, Carey is blazing one here, creating something that manages to be all at once touchingly personal, delightfully broad and unapologetic about either its humor or its convictions.