The To Do List
Rating: If I was a college president, I would require all incoming girls to see this film before beginning their freshman year.
The To Do List is another glorious film for and about women that have clawed their way into movie theaters in 2013. First we had Before Midnight where Julie Delpy wrestled with the demands of being both 40 and the mother of twins. In Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig played a 27-year old college graduate trying to make a professional living in New York and not starve to death. With The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza is an 18-year old high school valedictorian trying to finally have sex along with its many permutations before running off to college.
All three films are wonderful, and they are as intelligent as they are emotionally rewarding. Here, Ms. Plaza plays Brandy Klark, a smart young woman growing up in Boise, Idaho in 1993. She has received every academic award possible, and the only thing that she has missed is getting laid.
Wrestling with that problem, Ms. Klark prepares her list of sexual acts that need to be experienced the summer before college. It is a long list that includes everything from French kissing to hickeys to giving a selected man the dreaded “hand job”. And while I won’t describe her list further, she also understands the need to personally experience why a man’s finger can become a girl’s temporary best friend.
Brandy spends most of her time bouncing between her demented sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) and her two best friends Fiona (Alta Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele). While the three girls are a hoot, Ms. Shawkat is a ball of twisted energy. As previously seen in such unfairly overlooked films like Ruby Sparks (2012) and Cedar Rapids (2011), her nasty edge makes her far more attractive than the physical image portrayed on-screen.
But first and foremost, this film is about the madcap pursuit of sex, nothing more and nothing less. Brandy irritates other patrons in a movie theater as she gives a male acquaintance a hand job with the help of popcorn butter. Despite being warned by her friends that being “fingered” by a man frequently amounts to little more than watching him trying to recover coins from between two sofa cushions, she submits while helping her date get through her multiple pants zippers.
When she finally successfully seduces a local hunk played with understated charm by Scott Porter in a vehicle on a country road, she asks to be on top because her research shows that it increases a woman’s chance at having an orgasm by 40%. Nonetheless, her pursuit of ecstasy dies rather quickly when her long sought after intercourse ends after 90 seconds due to his sudden orgasm.
Also adding to the unanticipated charm of The To Do List is her summer job at a local public swimming pool. Bill Hader plays her drunken, goofy boss, and he continues his role as one of the most likeable actors on the screen. For example, when he finally finds inspiration from Brandy to quit his job, he decides to reject the pedestrian lifestyle of Boise to announce that he will now follow The Grateful Dead around the country.
Writer/Director Maggie Carey has brought us a real surprise with this film, as it superficially appears on its face to resemble little more than a female version of one of the weak Hangover sequels. However, Ms. Carey, who is married to Mr. Hader off-screen, delves into the female psyche with enthusiasm and charm. Young women have to discover that sex is a wonderful part of the human equation, but not the only part.
Finally, we also see that young Brandy is a gigantic fan of Hilary Clinton. She has a picture of our then-First Lady hanging in her bedroom, and in doing so Ms. Carey reminds us that Ms. Clinton is even more important to women in this country today than she was then. In the process, Brandy may check off all activities on her To Do List, but it is the inspiration of Ms. Clinton that will prove far more valuable in her life.