There is a special place in our hearts for the coming-of-age film. Adolescence is a universal theme that reflects the ephemeral nature of modernity. Moreover, these movies always have the potential to reach new audiences by focusing on protagonists of varying age, race, and gender. So it is that The Way Way Back and The To Do List can coexist in the same summer, but approach their subject matter in very different ways. And fortunately, writer/director Maggie Carey’s The To Do List does it with such raw enthusiasm that it unequivocally smokes its competition.
Bolstered by a consistent performance by Aubrey Plaza as the prudish Brandy Klark, the film handles sexuality with tact. Uncomfortable moments aren’t the product of a tasteless script, but rather the audience wrestling with their own taboos. Make no mistake, many scenes in The To Do List rival the most outrageous sequences in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s This Is The End; rest assured that Carey treats her characters with far more respect.
Consider the extremely awkward scene in This Is The End where Rogen and his friends discuss having sex with Emma Watson. Where that back-and-forth invited some criticism for its dark tones, The To Do List briskly sidesteps the issue. Carey chooses to include a prudent gag where Brandy is mistaken for another girl at a high school graduation party. In an age where subjects like consent are becoming part of the common dialogue, it is refreshing to see lighthearted films take a stab at more realistic teen sex scenarios.
This scene is somewhat bolstered by the 90s timeframe of the film. It is unclear why Carey made the decision to set The To Do List approximately twenty years in the past, but I wonder if it wasn’t to emphasize the comparatively sex-negative environment of the late 20th century. Disappointingly, without clear justification from Carey, her nostalgia remains a distracting element of the film.
Big-name comedies tend to feature stock actors known for pulling in money at the box office. Knowing little about the film going in, it was heartening to see the diverse levels of talent involved in this project. From the entire Derrick Comedy crew to Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Alia Shawkat, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the opening credits alone are enough to get any comedy fan excited.
And everyone delivers. Samberg underplays Van, the hilariously aloof lead singer of an amateur rock band, while Bill Hader shows compassion underneath his thorny exterior to serve as a foil for Brandy. Mintz-Plasse, Shawkat, and Glover all do very well in bit sequences throughout the movie, although all are underutilized considering their respective pedigrees.
Where The To Do List really shines is in its briskness. The film keeps a snappy pace until its final moments, maintaining audience interest in Brandy’s exploration of her sexuality. It is difficult for any comedy to remain funny for an extended period of time, but The To Do List manages to supplement dead air with a kinetic plot.
The To Do List is already infamous for pushing the sexual boundaries of the genre; even Aubrey Plaza found some of her scenes to be challenging. Looking beyond one-sided media coverage, though, it is easy to see that Carey has crafted a smart, sensitive, laugh-out-loud comedy. Plain and simple, The To Do List is a treat.
Verdict: Movie Win
Note on Derrick and Parks and Recreation – I’m a big fan of Derrick Comedy (the whole troupe shows up at one point or another in the film) and of Parks and Recreation. I wonder if Donald Glover’s name, Derrick, is a direct reference to his past in sketch comedy? Or if Aubrey Plaza threatening to call the parks department is a shout out to her famous role in Parks and Rec? Either way, little moments like that were welcome fan service.