Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Blockers.
There's a fundamental disconnect between the trailer for Blockers and the actual movie.
The trailer shows an all-too familiar story: After finding out that their daughters have pledged to lose their virginity on prom night, a group of protective parents decide to do everything in their power to stop them.
In all fairness, the idea of parents as ill-equipped to deal with their daughters' burgeoning sexuality isn't all that hard to buy. But the fact that the preview appears to frame their cause as morally righteous feels distinctly out of touch in today's cultural landscape, to the point that the initial reaction to the preview was one of dubious caution. Really? Another movie about the importance of female purity? After all, one John Cena butt-chugging scene does not a subversive film make.
But in reality, Kay Cannon's directorial debut goes far beyond the usual virginity scare trope (and that butt-chugging scene in question, it must be said, is masterfully done). The film is far more concerned with the intent and agency of its teenage protagonists — who, unlike what their parents believe, are very aware of the consequences of the choice they've made — than it is with reinforcing a message of puritan abstinence. It's almost as though the people in charge of marketing the film didn't know how to deal with its progressive messaging, and reverted to what they knew best. But this isn't a movie about virginity; it's a movie about sexual choice. And when the movie in question is an R-rated comedy about teenage girls from a major studio, directed by a woman, that feels downright revolutionary.
The real key to Blockers is the way in which the film takes the time to zoom in on the motivations of each of its distinct characters, rather than mashing them all together in a protective parents vs. promiscuous teens divide. Take our three best friends: The more girly-girl of the trio, Julie (Kathryn Newton), has been dating her boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips) for six whole months (practically a lifetime in high school). They've passed the "I love you stage," and are ready to consummate. And while her candy and rose petals fantasy of losing virginity might seem old school, don't be fooled — she knows what she wants, and how she wants it. Soccer star Kayla (Geraldine Viswanthan), on the other hand, is more pragmatic than romantic: she just wants to get the virginity thing over and done with so she can move on, and informs her lab partner that he's the lucky chosen one. And perhaps most compelling of all is Sam (Gideon Adlon), who buys into the pact as a way to remain connected to her best friends with college separation looming, even as she struggles to tell them that she's actually into girls. (In a Gen-Z twist that also showed up in this year's Love, Simon, it's not so much that she's worried about their judgment than she is about the status quo changing.)
And then there's the parents, thrown together in a circumstantial friendship of their own: Julie's single "cool mom" Lisa (Leslie Mann), who really just wants to protect her daughter from the bad experiences she's had with sex; Sam's degenerate deadbeat dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), who, having long guessed that his daughter is gay, wants to shield her from peer pressure; and finally Kayla's sensitive beefcake dad Mitchell (John Cena), the more traditional of the bunch who's struggling to come to terms with the idea of his daughter as a sexual person. ("I can't even hug her anymore without feeling her boobs!" he laments at one point.) The saving grace where they're concerned is how self-aware they are about this whole thing. They know that they're playing into a double standard that demands that women remain innocent while men are encouraged to experiment. That's all fine in theory — but we're talking about their kids, damn it! Fuck progressive.
Oh, and about John Cena — the casting in Blockers is phenomenal. Mann is almost manic in her best role in years, grounding the more boorish comedy of her male co-stars. (The scene shown in the trailer of them trying to decipher teen emoji speak is the rare time that's actually worked). Cena is basically what every dad pictures himself as when fantasising about beating up a daughter's suitor, while Barinholtz vacillates between lovable doofus and, somewhat astonishingly, the voice of reason. Newton and Adlon are both great, but it's Viswanathan who emerges as a true comic find. Her timing is spot-on, and she injects some boyish swagger in a power dynamic that would traditionally have her simpering. (In one scene towards the end, she demands oral sex from her date, the first time I've ever seen anything like it onscreen.)
The script by Brian and Jim Kehoe feels fresh, and reinvigorates a genre that's been put through its paces since Knocked Up hit the scene in 2007 (unsurprisingly, both were produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg). The film also owes much to the successes of Bridesmaids and Girls' Trip, both of which proved that there is an audience for women being raunchy. Still, that theory's never been tested in a teen-focused comedy, and that's where Cannon's expertise as writer of the Pitch Perfect franchise really shines through: in the many small details that make these girls feel real. Most cinematic portrayals of young women relegate them to the roles of shy prude or bitchy slut. These girls are assertive, yes, but they're not mean. They value their friendships. They talk about sex and make dick jokes because — shocker — women do that.
But more importantly, they are the product of a generation who have been taught that they're entitled to make their own decisions when it comes to their sexuality, but also that they must listen to each other, and, crucially, consent. There's no one-sided pleading from a sex-starved boy trying to bargain with his girlfriend, and definitely no coercion. In fact, this movie is as much a positive example for how young men should act, as it is for young women. And those parents could learn a thing or two as well.
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