The Bechdel Test looms large over the contemporary film comedy, a genre that has frequently been confused about what to do with female friendship. For the conventionally attractive, intelligent female character, the biggest storytelling roles in comedies have historically arrived in conjunction with relationships with men or in-fighting with other women—or, as is often the case, both at once. Romy and Michelle return to their high school reunion determined to be viewed as successes, even as the film’s context is female-on-female bullying alongside the relentless pursuit of the popular jock. And the Judd Apatow brand of relationship comedy asks its female characters to nag, berate, and belittle their male counterparts (often played by lovable doofuses who can’t seem to figure out how to be adults) while still being totally hot and perennially willing sexual partners. Even the recent Bachelorette and Bridesmaids—both being films that gamely continue a tradition of a mostly all-female cast begun in the 1930s with Stage Door and The Women—unfortunately rely heavily on the conventions of marriage as their backdrop, as if women only get together to celebrate the acquisition of a husband.
The arrival of Pitch Perfect, then, came as a breath of fresh air. Anna Kendrick’s Beca, an aspiring music producer, enters college and is immediately recruited to join the Barden Bellas, an all-female a cappella group, after being discovered by one of the members while singing in the shower. And while she’s initially ambivalent about getting dressed up and singing Top 40 songs that she clearly disdains, she ultimately finds a way to contribute her own brand of musical talent to the group, reviving a somewhat stale act and working alongside her new best friends toward a national title. Not only do these ladies kick ass together in what ultimately becomes a battle of the sexes in the national a cappella scene, but they do so with absolutely zero competition over the attention of men and minimal angst about sexual relationships in general. The most Beca thinks about boyfriends is whether or not she even wants one. The film hinges instead on the complexities of female ambition and ultimately rewards collaboration rather than competition.
Three national titles later, Pitch Perfect 2 opens with the Bellas performing for President Obama’s birthday celebration at Lincoln Center. But their performance comes to an abrupt conclusion when “Fat Amy” (Rebel Wilson) fumbles a daring acrobatic maneuver during a rendition of “Wrecking Ball” and, after an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction, accidentally reveals her lady parts to the entire audience while suspended several feet above the stage. Countless cellphone pictures and videos later, the group is publicly shamed and suspended from further competition—unless, rather conveniently, they can become the first American group ever to win a major global competition, thus earning their reinstatement as a team.
The slut-shaming element (or body-shaming at the very least) is subtle but powerful, and the women gamely enter into an unfair battle to regain their integrity in the eyes of the public, even as they receive buckets of hate mail (including, hilariously, a death threat from Sonia Sotomayor) and utter disdain from the rest of the a cappella community. The film then rather stiffly jumps between set pieces that sometimes feel absurdly staged, such as a secret underground competition which mimics the more seamlessly integrated “riff-off” in the previous film. But as we watch Beca navigate her entry into adulthood, balancing her music career with her friendships and her responsibilities to the Bellas, the film feels less like a circus and more like a meditation on the obstacles that women must overcome in order to succeed on their own terms.
After the group laments the lack of fun during the stressful build-up to world competition, Beca comes home late one night to the house she shares with the other Bellas—after finishing up work at her new music production internship—and finds her teammates engaged in a massive pillow fight in the living room. “You’ve just set women back 30 years,” she quips, a joke that also brings society’s expectations about women’s behavior squarely to the forefront. She’s basically saying, “If we have too much fun, we won’t get shit done, and then no one will take us seriously.” This is, after all, a movie about an incident in which a young woman makes a mistake that sexualizes an otherwise benign musical performance. Rather than be individually chastised (or, God forbid, have the mistake be understood as simply that, and having everyone just move the fuck on), the entire group of women with whom she associates is punished, as if one woman’s error brings all of womanhood down—a wrecking ball made literal.
Beca is not a pillow fighter. She is, however, a successful modern woman, and the fact that her success ultimately comes from combining her ambitions with her friendships is the film’s finest point. In the first film, she introduces mash-ups to the group’s repertoire, giving them a leg up in a competition mostly known for banal retreads, and here she bravely breaks the taboo of including original music in an a cappella performance (alongside newcomer Hailee Steinfeld). Finally, women really can have it all, especially when they work together. (They can even have a cute, supportive boyfriend who gets as little screen time in this film as he does in Beca’s newly busy schedule. Indeed, romance occupies only two minor subplots in Pitch Perfect 2, and in both cases the female character is given the power from the start. Whether she actually ends up with the man or not is entirely up to her.)
But the film’s final notes consist of Elizabeth Banks (who also occupies the director’s seat here) reflecting into the microphone—while reprising her role as Gail, radio announcer and a cappella expert—that everyone in the audience was moved by the Bellas’ performance at the world competition. And these are exactly the overstatements that plague Pitch Perfect 2, which is otherwise surprising, thoughtful, and hilarious: An audience that can appreciate such finely rendered moments as a fireside bonding session on a group retreat when the women intimately discuss their post-college plans, or Beca’s bold intervention at her internship when she brings new life to a (purposely) dull Snoop Dogg performance, can be trusted to be moved, or not, without being told to. The film’s central conflict—will the Bellas win the competition and thus regain their status as an on-campus a cappella group, or will generations of hard work be for nothing?—is similarly restated so often as to make the audience wonder if the characters, albeit musically talented, are also bizarrely hard of hearing.
However, the final performance is genuinely moving, and the surprise elements of the film’s conclusion also cement the franchise’s subject as that of building a legacy of female agency (indeed, Steinfeld’s character is often referred to as “the legacy,” her mother having been a legendary Bella in decades past). The Bellas have thrived by learning from what previous generations have accomplished while continuing to innovate and grow in new ways. Maybe we had to have Bridesmaids before we could have Pitch Perfect—comedic female characters working across franchises to help each other crawl out from under more conventional situations and structures to explore what’s available to them in this brave new world. And, similarly, Pitch Perfect 2 is even stronger than its predecessor, which didn’t quite go as far in terms of representing these young women in a wider context, suggesting that once new territory is conquered, the next trip out can often be even more fruitful.