Having sex in high school is so potentially fatal an exploit, it’s a wonder anyone does it. Years ago, it was bad…and that before the internet. Now, not only is there the acute embarrassment of having sex when you have no idea what you’re doing; you’ve also got the blogosphere / Facebook / text-rumour-mill to deal with. Can you (I’m speaking to those readers over-30 here) actually imagine how tough it must be to be clodhopping through your teens with ten thousand camera-phones recording every social faux pas? In the new comedy, Easy A, a girl gets a reputation as a harlot within about fifteen seconds of saying she’s slept with a guy. She doesn’t even have sex, and still everyone’s telling her she’s doing it wrong.
The movie is a modern version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s pious blub-fest The Scarlet Letter. As Clueless did for Jane Austen, Easy A relocates the action to a present day California high school: the epicentre of modern social mores; Ground Zero of cliques. Our heroine is one of those Peppermint Patty-sort-of-girls, who are clearly wonderful, but almost universally ignored (by boys) in favour of blonder, Barbie-er young women. She actually reads the class reading assignment. She has a sense of humour and reasonably high self-esteem. Still a virgin at 16, she decides to fake a sex life, for kicks, one day. But she’s overheard by the head of the school’s Christian Youth organisation. And Hell flares around her.
This being a Hollywood high school movie, it’s de rigueur that no-one under 20 plays a student. The Christian Youth are headed by Amanda Bynes (24). The Dream Boy is played by Penn Badgley (24). Even the lead, Emma Stone, is 22. But no matter: Easy A isn’t aiming for Gus Van Sant-realism. Like most high school comedies, the joy of the thing is in the daydream of school, not the bone-crushing self-consciousness of being 16. With this in mind, Emma Stone is ideal casting: funny, sexy, with a Kathleen Turner dip in her voice, she looks like she could play a married mother of two without straining credulity. That’s not saying she looks old, exactly – she doesn’t look 16; but then, she doesn’t look 42 either – it’s more that she looks like someone who’s seen it all, and forgiven most of it. Which is not, typically, the way teenagers look. Real high school rarely forgives human beings.
Still, it’s a great part: the funny girl who gets the guy. Even John Hughes didn’t allow girls to be funny (Molly Ringwald played the lead, but it was the boys who got all the laughs.) In Easy A, Emma Stone gets the punch-line in almost every scene…and still she’s the nicest character in the movie. Her dual role is best summed up in the script when she agrees to fake having sex with a gay student in order to help him pass as straight. Seeing his awkwardness around her when she undresses, Stone asks: “Are you really that repulsed by lady parts? What do you think I have down there? A gnome?” And where the line could sound hostile, or spiteful, Stone makes it sound cajoling. She’s cheekiest when she’s trying to help.
The movie doesn’t quite have the filthy verisimilitude of something like Superbad. Girls still aren’t allowed to talk about sex (in movies) the way boys are allowed to. But, post-Juno, it is allowed to have a smart script. And it does expect you to understand why Demi Moore playing Hester Prynne was a bad idea (there’s a running joke about the amount of nudity in Moore’s 1995 version of The Scarlet Letter). The film-makers know a lot more about 80s teen comedies than they do about Nathaniel Hawthorne, but that’s probably a good order of priorities, if you want to entertain. The movie is mostly a trial run for Emma Stone as a future inheritor of Debra Winger’s low voice/sexy goofball mantle. And in that aim, it’s a triumph.
Sex, in high school, is a lot like sex in a Puritan community: the less people have, the bigger deal it seems (& the more shame). Like the Puritans, lots of 16 year olds define themselves in terms of who they don’t want to be. For boys, that means they can’t be seen as virgins. For girls, that means that can’t be seen as sluts. Easy A is about a girl who takes pity on the outcast males of the student body (gay and geek alike), and who, in time honoured fashion, gets crucified by her fellow girls. Like Puritans, everyone perches in judgement, anxious to breathe relief that it’s not them being singled out. It’s always worse for girls to ignore what other girls think. Luckily, our heroine is too human to be trapped by narrow thoughts.