Emma Stone as "Olive Penderghast" in Screen Gems' EASY A.

I am reviewing Easy A. Yes, it has come to that.

It might seem like I’m being cheap with the title, doing that lame thing I hate in movie reviews where the title of the movie is used to make puns that refer back to it. Bill Wine, reviewer for Saskatoon’s Verb magazine is the worst culprit of this unimaginative cutesy bullshit in the known Universe and I hate his reviews for it and sometimes daydream about barging into the offices of Verb and smiting his ruin on the buildingside. Maybe then I’d replace him and write my own brand of wordy, insider-style reviews.

But I digress. The title of this review is, as has become sort of a trend with my reviews on this blog, a quote from the film itself! And really, I’m lazy and it seems like a good title because the movie itself was pretty awesome.

Now calling Easy A awesome comes with some conditions. While it is a clever and entertaining teen sex comedy (without the sex), where it gains serious quality points from me is at the script level. This is a movie that could have been slight and lame, teaching us a “valuable lesson” about the rumor mill, pretending to be slutty for attention, lies and deceit, and all the other simple shit that these sorts of movies tend to traffic in. In this case, we get a layered evaluation of some touchstones of modern day North America (mostly in terms of youth culture) in as disparate of realms as technology, socialization, agency, and religious preoccupation.

Easy A is a comedy with some teeth, but most of its satirizing is implied and I bet there was an earlier version with heavier-duty fangs. Unfortunately, a lot of this will be lost on the undiscerning audience who will see a light and breezy comedy focused on one girl’s foibles, evolution, and eventual triumph. Basically the same formula movies like this typically follow ad nauseum.  And even this element is commented on by the film itself, in an inspired series of references to similar types of movies from the 80’s, especially John Hughes movies, as well as the template female wish-fulfillment (for women over 30) saga of Say Anything. It’s as if Easy A aspires to be the heir to that era in the filmic landscape of today. In those latter day teen epics, things like subculture (jocks, geeks, etc) had major currency and the problems faced by those youths were emblematic of their time. Now, in a similar fashion, many of the types of cultural issues faced by contemporary teens are at least given a name-check in Easy A. Thus it occurs to me that this might just be a worthy successor to the films our parents and older siblings made us watch before we could ever understand them, the films that are pretty well lost on people not yet in their 20’s. Easy A is kind of a film for them.

But more details if you aren’t convinced yet!

I want to focus on the way Easy A slyly comments on issues that are only peripheral to its plot, and how this underscores the subtle but organic way these issues inform everything. The idea being that things as seemingly conceptually separate as Facebook and slut-shaming are interconnected. The presence of this theme would be obvious to Arts students who spend a lot of time talking about culture in both specific and nonspecific ways. I have a feeling that WGST (feminism) students and adherents would find a lot of meat to chew on in Easy A. I know that I did. But all that being said, most people aren’t going to see these nuggets straight away. Like I said before, it’s subtle and implied more than in your face. No one comes out and says “this is where we laugh at how baffling religion can be” or “this is how you can be a good parent and treat your children like human beings”, but all this and more is present in varying degrees of emphasis.

First off, Easy A deals with the attitude and social networking that has arisen out of technological applications like Facebook in an interesting way. Rather than focusing on Facebook or using it as a tool to drive the proceedings, the film depicts the speed at which rumors can get around a school using cell phones and word of mouth. This kind of scene wouldn’t be any different in a movie from the 80’s or 90’s except that it would be written notes shoved into lockers or passed in class rather than text messages. In this way, it’s sort of a classic trope but the consequences are where the update occurs.

Olive Penderghast, our heroine, is the “invisible student” and a lot of what she does in the film is self-serving as a means of getting attention, even as the film takes great pains to show she’s behaving altruistically to help people (more on this bizarre contradiction later). The way that her sex-life is overnight “everyone’s business” and fodder for discussion openly rather than behind closed doors is a sign of the times. In an 80’s movie, you know the whole school is talking about how Molly Ringwald had to do Saturday detention, but there would definitely be a veneer of decorum. The proliferation of our personal lives  is a direct consequence of social media and as Olive tells us at the end, that her real sex-life is no one’s goddamn business, the film is criticizing that. Thomas Haden Church’s teacher character makes the obvious point that sometimes our need to share about everything is insipid but Olive is too savvy a character to fall into that trap directly. Indeed, no one is ever shown to be using Facebook in the movie. But… it is through a live webcast that Olive tells the truth and finally shakes off her preoccupation with what the student body thinks of her. The message at the end being as familiar as anything I could name: be yourself, who cares what other people think.

That Olive manages to convince everyone she’s a slut and can strut around school dressed like she’s in a Madonna video is all about agency. Olive’s loving adoptive parents (a point that’s played for a laugh with her brother, a fellow adoptee but African-American) totally trust her and give her the freedom to do her thing. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Arquette are eccentric and hilarious in their roles, but there’s more to take away from them than a few laughs. Olive is a girl who’s sort of running on a level above most other people around her and I bet it’s largely to do with the way her parents have raised her. This barrier of earned sophistication is something Olive doesn’t seem aware of, the film doesn’t dwell on, and is the only way I can believe a girl who looks like Emma Stone would be “unnoticed”. Especially with her best friend, who’s trademark is her “big tits”. Anyway, Olive is ultimately allowed to be responsible for Olive and this is a far cry from the oppressive protective parents who, in earlier fare would be in the wrong but for the right reasons. Olive’s parents are probably progressive even in our times, but this is a refreshing element in a time where more and more parents seem to want to rely on censorship and sanctions from the government than on their own abilities to parent their kids.

Easy A also does a surprisingly bold thing in its criticism of evangelical, aggressive Christianity. In the film, Olive’s chief nemesis is an annoying girl played by a puffy, weird looking Amanda Bynes. This girl makes it her business to ostracize and criticize Olive for her sexual “deviance” at every turn. The film pokes fun at these kids’ preoccupation but doesn’t go any further than that with establishing that it is potentially the same quest for notice that lands Olive into trouble that gets these kids into a comforting pattern of belief like Christianity, not to mention the obvious social benefits. In this way, Easy A sidesteps the usual out vs. in adversity with which Mean Girls delivered a great contemporary example.

The villains in Easy A aren’t the “cool kids’ who torment the “uncool kids” but that this binary exists is taken as a given. The Christian kids in Easy A aren’t taken seriously by the school at large, they’re just another clique. The collage of cliques, most with equal standing if there’s any standing at all, is a contemporary phenomenon that I saw myself in High School. I’m sure jocks and cheerleaders still rule schools all over the place, but that trend is changing and it’s nice to see that reflected here.

Perhaps the most interesting foray into criticism of religion is when Olive goes looking for advice and answers from a priest and only finds the obnoxiously close-minded, self-assured father of her nemesis. This quest is abandoned straight away and Olive emerges as baffled and amused by religion as she was before. This characterization of fundamentalist Christianity is pretty bold in a time where these people have a lot of clout and very loud voices. Exposing them as being inherently confused and comical is probably more effective than trying to get people to reject them based on the danger of their beliefs or the aggression with which they tend to propagate them.

On a more or less final note, I think Easy A may be most interesting because of its ethical ambiguity. The movie, like I said, takes pains to show that Olive is mostly altruistic, her lies being helpful to others. But she also takes payment and is seen to buy into the illusion of prostitution once or twice, if only for the fun of it. Though it isn’t explored overtly (notice the trend?), Olive’s remarks about being mostly unnoticed at the beginning of the film echo all through the rest of her behavior. When the rumors about her being a slut get really out of hand, she doesn’t react by coming clean and learning a lesson… she goes into slut overdrive and starts wearing corsets. There’s a part of Olive that feeds off of this attention and a lot of what transpires ends up seeming all the more ludicrously self-serving, as if things like Olive’s suspension-of-disbelief-shattering performance (to be fair, all these types of movies have a scene like this) at the pep rally and the sudden interest of nice-guy Todd (who doesn’t care about the rumors, and who looks 28 years old) are fever dreams of a desperately lonely girl who has malevolently antagonized her (only?) friend in the name of attention-getting slutdom.

Instead of making the movie bad, the way Olive is supposed to be a hero in spite of her awful treatment of Rhiannon, mercenary behavior, and the way she gets away with everything in the end and the world has coalesced into perfect form for her, it makes the whole thing hella interesting to me.

That the movie seems to be in agreement with the feminist mission to do away with “slut-shaming” (or, the mistreatment of women based on promiscuous sex) is clear and fair. That Olive gets to be a feminist heroine even though she’s kind of a selfish twat who invites most of the slim victimization she receives from others, is unclear and decidedly unfair. But very, very interesting.

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