Friday, November 05, 2010

'A' great new teen movie

Bumming around YouTube the other night I found a clip of writer/director/actor Harold Ramis explaining the difference between a cliché and a convention. “When we see something done badly we call it a cliché and when it is done well we respect it as a convention.” It is a fine distinction, but the point is just because a film follows a formula doesn't make it bad, it is the execution that counts.

Teen movies often get dismissed as mindless entertainment and, unfortunately, most films targeted at teens are deserving of the dismissal because they pander to their audience instead of respecting it. This is what makes “Easy A,” so refreshing. Here's a film that doesn't condescend to its audience and that will have broad appeal beyond the teen and 20-something demographic it was made for.

“Easy A” is a shrewd, self-aware reworking of themes from Nathaniel Hawthorne's “Scarlet Letter” and conventions from 1980s teen films, particularly the work of John Hughes. The script by Bert V. Royal, author of the play “Dog Sees God,” an equally astute teen reworking of Charles Schulz' Peanuts, is both observant and funny. Like Hughes, Royal seems to have a keen memory for what it was like to be a teen.

The film's protagonist is Olive (Emma Stone) who, through a webcam confessional, explains how a little white lie told to her best friend (Aly Michalka) about losing her virginity very quickly transformed her from an unknown good girl to an ostracized bad girl.

A gay classmate (Dan Byrd) who is constantly being bullied asks her to pretend to have sex with him to prove his straightness and appease his tormentors. She takes pity and soon word gets around to other geeks and outcasts. Olive trades her fake sexual favors for gift cards to Tommy Hilfiger and

At first, Olive enjoys the notoriety and embraces her new reputation, but it isn't long before the high school Christian club begins to crusade against Olive's seemingly trampish ways.

If handled poorly this kind of material that could turn odious rather quickly, but Royal's script has genuine wit and allows its characters to be intelligent. Olive is raised by parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson) who are well-spoken and open-minded and have instilled these qualities into their daughter.

Much of the events are painted in broad strokes, particularly the Christian club led by Amanda Bynes' Marianne. But there are details and moments in the performances, particularly Stone's, that have truth to them.

The way Stone nervously babbles on a date or the sequence in which she falls in love with “the worst song ever” are familiar, but feel right. The scene in which Byrd begs Stone for help has an unexpected emotional honesty.

Director Will Gluck has his camera whiz through the high school campus showing the speed in which a rumor spreads in the era of Facebook and cellphones. This is hardly new news, but the visualization of it is clever and on point.

This is a breakout, star-making performance for Stone, who has done good work in movies like “Superbad” and “Zombieland,” but proves she can carry a movie. Here, given a lead role, she reveals herself to be an apt comic actor with the ability to deliver intelligent, fast paced dialogue believably. Similar to Ellen Page in “Juno,” Stone takes dialogue that some may accuse of being too clever by half and makes it seem natural.

While on the subject of “Juno,” Tucci and Clarkson are probably the best screen parents since that film. These are two of the best character actors in the business and though their screen time is limited they provide such warmth, humor and naturalness to their characters. The same can be said of Thomas Hayden Church as Olive's favorite teacher.

Most teen movies are male centric, but dating back to Hughes' “Sixteen Candles,” a film “Easy A” directly references, there has been a long standing tradition of teen films with female heroines. “Easy A” is worthy of standing proudly along side the likes of “Heathers,” “Clueless,” “Election” and “Mean Girls” as a shining example of what a teen movie can be.

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