Is it just me, or is the long arm of the Internet informing all our entertainment these days? In addition to the Web’s up-to-the-nanosecond commentary on culture and all its attendant warring, lately cinema is full to brimming with Internet-inspired entertainments, from the absorbing late-summer documentaries Winnebago Man
to narrative features like the end-is-nigh (or at least the end of any forward movement for feminism) comedy The Virginity Hit
and David Fincher’s hotly anticipated chronicle of Facebook’s first steps, The Social Network
. Easy A
, too, riffs on social media’s Big Brother-like shadow; when a rumor kick-starts about the devirginizing of its heroine, high school senior Olive (Zombieland
’s Stone), it spreads like – what else? – a virus via text and Twitter. And when Olive seeks to defend herself, where’s a savvy 21st century girl to go but a live feed broadcast over the World Wide? This is high school sexual politics in the app age – and honestly it makes one wistful for, sheesh, the artlessness of Friendster, so long ago – but director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal offset their take on The Way We Live Now, Thumbs a-Go-Go Edition with overt (and, yes, gently overplayed) references to the halcyon days of John Hughes-era hookups, with their now quaint-seeming conundrums of clashing class, clique, and taste. The loose inspiration here is The Scarlet Letter
, that old chestnut about a passionate woman undone by her community’s unthinking castigation. Olive, who has to her admitted frustration mostly slipped through high school unnoticed, finds herself square in the middle of a gossiping frenzy when furious whispers of a loss of virginity go up the flagpole. Helpless to combat them – and she tries, if halfheartedly – Olive decides to embrace the rumor, in part as a too-smart-for-school young woman’s social experiment and in part (though she’s less quick to own up to it) because she savors the attention of a supposed harlot after so long spent in the shadows. It’s a wonderfully kicky idea that would be even kickier still if Olive’s genuine exploration of sexuality, and not just the rumors of it, were a real topic of interest. This isn’t that movie. But the one we’re left with is still pretty swell, a surprisingly warmhearted examination of hypocrisy and social insecurity, unlikely camaraderie and stutter-stepped formation of adult identity. Stone is, quite irrefutably, a knockout as the husky-voiced recalcitrant Olive, at once rejecting and tempting the social hierarchy. Her essential nature – her origin story, really – is nimbly established in a family dynamic anchored by the wacko-beatific performances of Clarkson and Tucci as her modern-boho parents. Olive’s still-new sense of self – her freethinkingness, her rejection of authority, her theatricality, and her keenness for an audience appreciative of a good quip – are all products of her parentage, something Gluck and Royal slyly illuminate in scenes that could be confused for casual badinage but actually contribute quite substantively to the formation of a character who carries the film. (Would that Gluck and Royal hadn’t undercut the parents’ larky back and forth by re-creating it in another adult couple, played by Church and Kudrow, who teach at Olive’s school.) There are hiccups – Badgley, overbuffed from his day job at Gossip Girl
, is distractingly self-possessed as Olive’s love interest, Bynes’ super-Christian smacks of Mandy Moore’s tart career-rerouting in Saved!
, and again, there’s that Hughes go-to, when what we want from our modern teen comedies is a fresh supply of iconic images, not a callback to ones from earlier decades. And yet: We’ve got Stone bouncing enthusiastically on a borrowed bed, feigning sexual ecstasy with her closeted gay friend. It’s a keeper.