The To Do List: Film Review

Wide-ranging genre appeal could see this teen comedy reach break-out proportions.

Writer-director Maggie Carey’s feature debut boasts a crack ensemble cast, led by Aubrey Plaza, that evocatively captures the carefree elation of youthful summer romance.

Coming of age comedies are fraught with seemingly limitless pitfalls, necessitating a well-honed screenplay and persuasive performances to assure audience allegiance. So with consistently entertaining characters and infectious humor, writer-director Maggie Carey’s Black List script is already punching well above its weight. With summer tentpoles crumbling nearly every weekend, The To Do List might have an opening to convert the short attention span of still-vacationing teens into promising returns even beyond the summer season with the support of strong word of mouth and strategically targeted promotion.

Even as 1993 valedictorian of her Boise high school class, mathlete Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) can’t escape the ridicule of many classmates for her goody-good image and lack of worldliness. Facing her first year in college as a virginal freshman, Brandy decides to reevaluate her priorities, especially after a drunken mix-up at her very first kegger results in a mistaken make-out session with too-hot Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), the No. 1 object of lust among all her classmates.

Brandy quickly tosses her college planning when she discovers her latent libido in favor of a to-do list of sexual experiences she hopes will quickly get her up to speed before the fall semester starts. Her more experienced BFFs Wendy (Sarah Steele) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat) are dubious that Brandy can go from bench-warmer status to home base in one short summer, but with the experienced guidance of her semi-skanky sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), who lost her virginity at 14, Brandy sorts out her priorities and identifies a shortlist of candidates to help her get into the game.

VIDEO: 'The To Do List' Trailer

She quickly checks off her first few goals with her crushed-out chemistry lab partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons), but finding out that Rusty is also working at the same public pool where she’s lifeguarding for the first time over the summer throws Brandy off her stride. Her nonchalant response to the constant hazing from her coworkers and slacker boss, Willy (Bill Hader), earns her some respect, however, particularly when she elicits the well-kept secret that could get Willy fired.

With Rusty so tantalizingly nearby almost every day and showing growing interest as Brandy sheds her uptight image, as well as her one-piece swimsuit in a favor of a bikini, she senses her ultimate goal might not be far off, especially with the rumor spreading that she’s writing some sort of teen sex manual. Then Cameron totally bums her out with a squirmingly awkward revelation, forcing Brandy to consider whether there might be some collateral emotional damage associated with her sexual conquests that could derail her grand scheme. 

Making a convincingly assured feature debut, TV and web series writer-director Carey's script nails the raunchy-sweet tone required to bring off this R-rated teen-centered comedy with remarkable charm and relatability, mining a rich vein of girl-centered sexual curiosity and experimentation "loosely inspired" by personal experience. Her flair for visual humor is constantly on display as well, ranging from the smaller details of production design to the expertly timed physical comedy of nearly every scene.

Both funnier and kinder than other recent attempts to capture the attention of a disparate segment of female moviegoers, the film achieves a cheerfully ambivalent tone more appropriate to carefree youthfulness. Beyond its target audience, the good-natured inclusion of various male characters and perspectives signals date-movie potential that could eventually reach break-out proportions.

Plaza’s performance, shaped both by Brandy’s naivete and her almost clinical determination to lose her virginity, sets the narrative on a sex-positive journey of discovery, creating ample opportunity for misunderstanding and humor. Approaching sexual activities as if they’re homework assignments, Plaza makes Brandy’s steep learning curve all the more believable by altogether owning the raunchiness of the script without relinquishing an air of playful innocence. 

Brandy’s quest might be fruitless without the support of her family and friends, including her mother (Connie Britton), a straight-talking nurse, and her far more experienced sister, played by Bilson with a winning mixture of sagacity and sexual accomplishment. Shawkat and Steele prove an antic pair of best friends, enthusiastically abetting Brandy’s suddenly assertive behavior.

In fact, they’re all way more dialed-in than the mostly clueless guys, who respond to Brandy’s come-ons with a combination of bewilderment and opportunism, only to be passed over as she checks off another experience on her list. Simmons is all puppy dog eyes and wounded pride as Brandy’s smitten classmate, and although Porter displays an air of romantic invincibility as the singularly named Rusty Waters, he might just crack if Brandy gets under his skin. And as her burnout boss, Hader’s laid-back humor and poorly concealed vulnerability add a bittersweet note to the predominantly lighthearted narrative.

A killer soundtrack of 90s hits, along with spot-on costume and production design, elevate the film well above its modestly budgeted pedigree.

Opens: July 26 (CBS Films)

Production companies: Varsity Pictures, Mark Gordon Company

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton

Director-writer: Maggie Carey

Producers: Jennifer Todd, Brian Robbins, Sharla Sumpter Bridgett

Executive Producers: Mark Gordon, Bill Hader, Maggie Carey, Tracy McGrath, Greg Walter, Tom Lassally

Director of photography: Doug Emmett

Production designer: Ryan Berg

Costume designer: Trayce Gigi Field

Music: Raney Shockne

Editor: Paul Frank

Rated R, 104 minutes