From Bob Clark’s Porky’s to Greg Mottola’s Superbad, Hollywood has consistently privileged the spectacle of male teenage horniness. The archetypal high school sex comedy often sees a small group of likable, somewhat nerdy boys on an epic quest to get laid, with the female characters treated more as prizes to be won than as sexual beings in their own right. These films are one piece of a broader culture that relentlessly sexualizes young women while at the same time idealizing their purity and innocence.
It’s to the credit of Kay Cannon’s Blockers that it does neither, instead confronting these hypocritical narratives head-on. The film essentially dramatizes the conflict between feminine sexual urges and puritanical social disapproval by pitting three high school seniors—Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and Sam (Gideon Adlon)—determined to get laid on their prom night against their parents. The idea of these girls losing their virginity drives Kayla’s uptight father, Mitchell (John Cena), and Julie’s over-protective mother, Lisa (Leslie Mann), so crazy that they are, among other things, pushed to commit a break-in and engage in “butt-chugging.”
Cannon approaches the randiness of her female characters with unvarnished frankness: These girls drink hard, take drugs, and speak with unapologetically foul-mouthed candor, regularly saying stuff like, “I’d rather eat 10 dicks than one Mound.” But they’re also diverse in their attitudes toward sex. Julie wants it to be perfect—a tender, meaningful encounter with a guy she really cares for—while Kayla just wants it to happen and happen soon. Sam, on the other hand, is increasingly unsure if she wants to do it with a guy at all, as she finds herself far more infatuated with a nerdy-cute lesbian girl, Angelica (Ramona Young), than with her oafish prom date, Chad (Jimmy Bellinger).
With its raunchy, rapid-fire dialogue and one-crazy-night narrative, Blockers clearly owes a debt to Superbad, and it’s no surprise to see that film’s screenwriters, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, credited as producers here. But comparisons to Mottola’s coarsely funny yet emotionally resonant sex comedy tend to highlight both what’s admirable and ultimately disappointing about this film. Cannon’s inclusive, sex-positive vision of the fluidity and nonspecificity of female sexual desire offers a welcome contrast to Superbad’s male-centric and relentlessly heteronormative point of view, but Blockers lacks the lived-in feel of Mottola’s film, the sense it gave of watching true friends wrestling with their transition into adulthood. Viswanathan, Newton, and Adlon generate a bit of chemistry throughout, but it’s undermined by the fundamentally mechanistic nature of Brian and Jim Kehoe’s screenplay, which ultimately forces these girls’ experiences into neat little scenarios that are constructed every bit as didactically as a workplace training video.
Unfortunately, Blockers is also a hash of over-the-top jokes and ham-handed sentimental moments, such as the resolution to the through line involving Sam’s father, Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a dirtbag who’s become somewhat estranged from his daughter following his divorce from her mother. Cannon, here making her directorial debut, struggles with some of the basic elements of film grammar, as even the bog-standard conversation scenes are often full of mismatched shots. The director spends much of the film setting up big gross-out gags, and while none of these are terribly inventive, they’re at least bluntly effective. The problem, though, is that they’re all oddly weightless, as no sooner has a car exploded or Hunter’s gotten his balls violently squeezed by a kinky housewife (Gina Gershon) than the film has moved on to the next scene, pretending as if these insane things never even occurred.
Meanwhile, some of the film’s most promising gags are completely undercut by Cannon’s formal sloppiness. Take the scene in which Lisa finds herself trapped in the hotel room where her daughter is about to lose her virginity. As Lisa attempts to extricate herself from the situation without being noticed, one can imagine the beautifully crafted visual comedy this might have been in the hands of, say, Blake Edwards, but here it’s a jumble of fumbled shots and awkward cuts that fail to provide a coherent sense of space for Mann’s daffy physical comedy to take flight. Completely lacking in technical finesse, Blockers may have a well-developed message, but otherwise it’s a wash.