If the boys can have their American Pie and eat it too, then surely the girls deserve a let’s-get-laid yukfest as well. Maggie Carey’s The To Do List rides the wave of raunchy post-Bridesmaids female-centric comedies, tracking virginal graduating high school student Brandy Clark’s (Aubrey Plaza) efforts to gain sexual experience over the summer before beginning her freshman year at Georgetown. Crafting an actual list of erotic activities she’s never experienced, and in some cases never even heard of (rimjob), she spends the dog days getting boys of her acquaintance, most of whom work with her as lifeguards at the city pool, to perform these sexual favors, all with an eye on saving her big deflowering for a hunky local, Rusty (Scott Porter).
Set in Boise, Idaho in 1993, a time (and place) where one imagines a certain sexual innocence was still possible, the film overloads its script with a veritable catalogue of ’90s pop-culture references (Home Improvement, push-up bras, non-letterboxed VHS cassettes) and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of period-appropriate tunes. If the particular story the film tells wouldn’t be possible in the Internet age of instant information, then Carey seems far more interested in using the setting to simply get off on dropping as many wink-wink period signifiers as possible.
In doing so, she seems to be having more fun than our initially clueless heroine, whose crash course in hooking up proves largely unsatisfying (in both the sexual and non-sexual sense), whether it involves her dry-humping her way around the living room floor with a smarmy friend, Duffy (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), or giving a handjob inside a movie theater to Cameron (Johnny Simmons), the archetypal nice guy who has a crush on her. Essentially the film aims to trade in the awkwardness of teen sexuality, but too often settles for the gross-out gag instead, which, in the film’s low point, involves the naïve heroine literally eating shit.
Carey clearly has a feminist agenda, but it gets stalled on the essential questionability of the film’s central conceit. While gaining sexual experience is a reasonable goal for a young female protagonist, Brandy’s decision to suddenly dive into the world of sex is obviously a result of the pressures facing young woman to engage in erotic exploits simply for the sake of doing so. There’s nothing to suggest that Brandy has any real desire to try these things; she simply gives in to the suggestions of her best friends who mock her uptightness. And even though she takes to the project with gusto, bringing the same methodical precision to the pursuit that she applies to her schoolwork, the essential societal influences that led to her creating the to-do list in the first place are never sufficiently probed.
What’s admirable about the film is its ultimate embrace of female sexuality as a potentially more liberated force than its male counterpart. Early on in her project, Brandy determines that women’s pleasure is an important consideration and her quest moves toward the ultimate satisfaction of finally achieving orgasm. But Brandy never apologizes or regrets even her less satisfying encounters, chalking them up as part of the process. Instead it’s the men who are hung up on sex, and specifically the question of sexual control, whether it’s Brandy’s Rush Limbaugh-reading father, the possessive Cameron, or even the surprisingly traditional-minded Rusty. Only in the liberated world of college, Carey suggests in a final scene, can teen awkwardness find its antidote, as sexual clumsiness and uptightness give way at last to equitable sexual pleasure.