It's a shame "The To Do List" is a bit of a drag, because you can see writer/director Maggie Carey trying to pull off something semi-progressive inside the form of her teen sex comedy.
Carey wrote the screenplay (which once made The Black List's yearly roundup of great unproduced scripts) based loosely on her own experiences as a teen lifeguard in Boise, Idaho. Set in 1993, the low-budget film charts the awkward but scarily organized sexual experimentation of just-graduated high-school valedictorian (and virgin) Brandy (Aubrey Plaza).
Brandy decides she needs to learn about sex during the summer before she heads to Georgetown on a full-ride scholarship. True to type-A form, she makes a handwritten checklist of sexual acts she barely comprehends -- with the goal of checking off as many as possible before bedding the hot lifeguard (Scott Porter) who works with her at a run-down Boise swimming pool.
Many of her erotic experiments involve her safe-male pal Cameron (Johnny Simmons) -- who gets emotionally hooked on her even as she's fooling around with Cameron's friends and coworkers and the occasional touring rock musician.
What's unusual is that Carey has crafted a filthy teen sex comedy in which the lead is (a) a strong-minded young woman who (b) doesn't define her entire self-worth through boys or feel much in the way of shame while (c) ultimately learning (relatively) nuanced lessons about sex as it relates to emotion -- how it's both "a big deal and not a big deal," as she puts it at one point. That's all rarer than it ought to be in this comedy genre. And I guess '90s nostalgia is a thing now. Makes for a decent soundtrack.
I just wish the movie was funnier, and a lot less uneven.
Aubrey Plaza is a great deadpan presence, and properly deployed she can carry a film (see "Safety Not Guaranteed" for proof), but she doesn't quite find a consistent character here. Good comic actors (Alia Shawkat, Clark Gregg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Carey's husband Bill Hader) are wasted on gags that are telegraphed or dopey -- a set piece in which Plaza is just repeatedly pushed in the pool comes to mind. And undeveloped subplots (Hader learning to swim, an out-of-nowhere rivalry with a nearby country club) pad out the premise.
There's a potentially innovative teen comedy in here somewhere, but it's surrounded by one that's much duller.
(104 min., rated R for for pervasive strong crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language -- all involving teens) Grade: C
'The To Do List' (The Oregonian, Friday, July 26, 2013)