In its exuberantly smutty way, “The To Do List” is a revolutionary development: a teen sex comedy where the girls get to play nasty and the boys stand around looking vaguely terrified. It’s the first commercial feature from writer-director Maggie Carey, who back in 2001 made a documentary about women making a porn film. But this is hardly a doctrinaire essay on the evils of the male gaze. On the contrary, “The To Do List” falls neatly into the time-honored “Losin’ It” genre in which putative adolescents played by 20-something Hollywood actors scheme to de-virginize themselves while dodging a steady rain of gross-out gags.
Carey hasn’t busted out of the genre — the jokes-to-duds ratio is about three-to-one; not bad but nothing to overpraise — so much as turned its gender dynamics upside down. That in itself would be enough, but “The To Do List” also has the good fortune to star Aubrey Plaza, a lovely, misanthropic dark cloud of an actress on her way to becoming the Winona Ryder and/or Christina Ricci of her generation. If you’ve seen her on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” you know Plaza can do dour like nobody’s business; if you had the luck to catch last year’s indie fluke “Safety Not Guaranteed,” you know she has the makings of a wary romantic lead. Here she gets to play in the big tent where the boys usually rule; it’s not a natural fit, but she makes the movie her own.
Plaza plays Brandy Klark, a Boise, Idaho, high school senior — the actress is pushing 30, but never mind — who’s the class valedictorian and full-time Miss Priss. The kind of person who corrects her friends’ grammar. “Who the [expletive] did you kiss?” asks Fiona (Alia Shawkat in the equally time-honored sarcastic best friend role). “Whom the [expletive] did I kiss,” responds Brandy. This is right after she has gotten “After-School Special drunk” at a graduation kegger and found herself in a dark room with a bronzed, surfer-dude boy toy named Rusty Waters (Scott Porter, playing the himbo with ease). It’s a ripe moment of comic lust: Brandy takes a look at his abs and, for the first time, wants that. “You feel like Marky Mark looks,” she burbles in wonder.
Nothing much happens, though, and being a frustrated Type-A sort, Brandy makes a list of the things she needs to know and the sexual benchmarks she’ll have to pass before she deems herself ready for the orgiastic mosh pit that she has been told is freshman year. The film is set in 1993 for no reason that I can discern other than that the Internet’s not around yet, so Brandy’s research is Google-free by necessity. (If it took place today, “The To Do List” would be five minutes long.) Her list is filled with acts and body parts I can’t begin to detail in a family paper, and Brandy applies herself to them with the resolve of a doctoral student applying for a fellowship.
You know what to expect with “Losin’ It” movies: lots of scabrous talk, a little action, and a tidy moral about respecting yourself at the end. “The To Do List” plays by some of those rules but not many. Its boldest assumption is that Brandy deserves all the pleasure she can find, and if she has to experiment with a number of partners and step on a few hearts (including her own), that’s part of growing up. Because the genre demands it, you know the nice, steady Cameron (Johnny Simmons) — it’s the early ’90s, so everyone keeps calling him “Kirk” — will still be standing at the end, but not before a movie theater scene to rival the one in “Diner,” and not before Brandy has sampled half the cast, which includes such comic stalwarts as Donald Glover, Andy Samberg, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and lonesome Bill Hader as the slacker manager of the pool where Brandy works.
“The To Do List” wears its lowbrow fairly high and its highbrow proudly low: There’s a poop joke that acknowledges a classic gag in “Caddyshack” only to turn it inside out. But the movie’s most subversive touch may be its vision of a world where women are sexual adventurers — even Brandy’s mother (Connie Britton) is clearly drawing on a lot of experience in her sex-talks with her daughter — while the men bump into furniture and trip over their emotions. It’s a film nutty enough to give Brandy her first orgasm while her face is mooshed up against a framed photo of her idol, Hillary Clinton. It’s also a slapdash farce that takes our culture’s enduring virgin/whore dichotomy and laughs it to pieces. Parents, lock up your sons.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.