Directed by Will Gluck. Starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Dan Byrd, Aly Michalka, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow, Thomas Haden Church. (2010, PG-13, 93 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Sept. 17, 2010
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 and Catfish 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.