THE TO DO LIST

7/30/13 Update: Listen to great interview with writer/director Maggie Carey on NPR!

PopsicleCropKudos to writer/director Maggie Carey for creating a terrific first feature about a very brainy high school valedictorian (Aubrey Plaza) who wants to lose her virginity before heading off to college.

With great respect for 3 interlocking circles (home, work & time with BFFs), there is never a dull moment, and the ending is all heart. I laughed myself silly. Brava to Maggie & team! (JLH: 4.5/5)

Click HERE for our FF2 Haiku. Not yet seen by Rich.

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Maybe I imagined this, but I seem to remember reading a few years back about a software marketing survey. It seems everyone already knew boys wanted to purchase games, so the goal of this particular project was to determine what kind of software products to sell to girls. It turned out the answer was planning software: the thing girls most wanted to buy was software that would automate and organize their To Do lists. Well if I dreamt this up, then one day writer/director Maggie Carey had the same hallucination!

Aubrey Plaza stars as “Brandy Klark,” a character right in the planning software marketer’s sweet spot. We first meet Brandy at her high school graduation where she is–what else–the class valedictorian. Brandy is incredibly smart, diligent, and hard working, but she is also bossy, imperious, and regarded by all (even the Principal!) as an intimidating, insufferable prig.

Luckily Brandy has two BFFs “Fiona” (Alia Shawkat) and “Wendy” (Sarah Steele), as well as a science lab partner, “Cameron” (Johnny Simmons) who all adore her. And she also has a smart and savvy mother (Connie Britton as “Mrs. Klark”) who aspires to be her daughter’s “guardian angel” rather than her “friend.”

After some cheerleader types heckle her and shut down her Valedictory Address with hoots of “Virgin! Virgin!,” Brandy decides to make a summer-long project of losing her virginity. She constructs a list of sex acts, and builds a matrix, so she can check them all off (What?/Who?/DONE!) before heading to college in the Fall. And so begins 104 minutes of giddy fun.

I must admit that I entered the theatre with great trepidation, fully expecting the “girl power” version of a Judd Apatow film, heavy on vomit and excrement, and light on genuine relationships. (Kinda like Bridesmaids but with younger actors.) Well, yes, there is some of that, but actually very little and mostly at the beginning. The To Do List is a genuinely female-oriented coming-of-age story, and I loved it!

The plot plays out with great respect for the three interlocking circles of Brandy life: home, work and time with BFFs.

Life at home is dominated by Brandy’s relationship with her older sister “Amber” (Rachel Bilson). As often happens, the two squabbling sibs have carved up the turf. Once we meet Amber, we quickly understand that she has always been “the pretty one,” which is clearly one reason why Brandy felt so compelled to become “the smart one.” Their father “Mr. Klark” ( Clark Gregg) is a judge, another reason for Brandy to think that brainpower is a winning strategy.

Work, on the other hand, is an all male domain because Brandy is spending her summer as a lifeguard at the local community pool. The boss is “Willy” (Bill Hader), a laid back fan of the Grateful Dead, but all eyes (including Brandy’s) are fixed on “Rusty Waters” (Scott Porter) a hunk who is already in college. Rusty’s exalted status as object of desire is indicated by the fact that he is the only character besides Brandy to have both a first name and a last name.

The lessons learned are gentle but insistent, and the feminist intent is strong but never strident. Carey fills the screen with perfectly chosen props: pix of Hilary Clinton in Brandy’s room and Rush Limbaugh books in her father’s room. Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele both have a lot of experience in the BFF role (Shawkat in films like The Brass Teapot and Whip It, and Steele in films like Margaret and Please Give ); they work off each other beautifully and the trio’s final scene together is a hoot.

But what I appreciate most about The To Do List is the way Carey develops her young male leads. Cameron is a genuine sweetie and Rusty has a heart of gold. How different from the usual images we see of young men on screen these days. Turns out no one likes to be reduced to a check mark on someone else’s list. We’d all much prefer to be thought of as people. Brava!

BrandysRoom

Top Photo: Aubrey Plaza as “Brandy.” Practice makes perfect 😉

Bottom Photo: Brandy makes a plan in the girly girl bedroom of her nice suburban home.

Photo Credits: Bonnie Osborne/CBS Films

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