This week in People Who Obviously Aren’t Teenagers Playing Teenagers is Hulu’s Sex Appeal, a raunch-com about a high schooer bent on losing her virginity. Not a novel concept, but it has an added wrinkle: It’s for science! Director Talia Osteen and star Mika Abdalla each mark their feature debut, the title of which is a pun, since our protagonist is a hyperoverachiever who decides to make an APP for people who desire the perfect sexual experience. GET IT? Don’t worry though – the movie is more than just a one-joke endeavor.
SEX APPEAL: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Avery (Abdalla) takes the stage at STEMCON and freezes up, which is way out of character for her, as we’re about to find out, because this scene is one of those scenes that cuts away so the narrative can flash back then work its way ahead to this critical moment. Sigh? Yeah, kind of. Anyway, Avery is a senior with a GPA of a billion and a wallful of medals and a full ride to MIT. She doesn’t go to prom or any of that, because who has time for it, and besides, human emotion is an evolutionary level below her.
She does have family and a BFF, at least. Her mom Deb (Fortune Feimster) is a nurturing pancake-maker and her other mom Suze (Margaret Cho) is an acclaimed painter of vaginas and her third mom Kim (Rebecca Henderson), who joined Suze when Deb and Suze split, provides added, slightly more awkward support. So between all the moms and her Mr. Spock brain, Avery doesn’t know diddly-squat about sex with boys – and, come to find out, even doing diddly when she squats. (I know. I apologize.) Her lifelong pal is Larson (Jake Short), a nice guy who always allowed her to light him on fire for her science experiments, but when they were 14 he made a move and grazed her boob and got socked for his trouble. She sets the boundaries around here, and THEY ARE PLATONIC.
Avery also has a long-distance boyfriend she met at the last STEMCON, Casper (Mason Versaw), and he’d really like to consummate their relationship at the next one, which is a month away. That’s logical to Avery, but she’s clueless in a very brazen and shameless and confident way, which is a way of saying she says the quiet stuff about sex very loud in front of everybody, and she believes it’s all unnecessary anyway: “I’d already optiimized my life so there were no areas of weakness,” she says. The STEMCON objective is to create an app that’ll solve a problem in your personal life, so she’ll just gather all the data she needs in order to make her first time perfect, and that’ll be her project. She interviews peers and takes measurements and the like, but for hands-on R&D, she needs a partner with a schlong. Enter Larson, who’s game for getting handsy with his longtime pal-turned-crush. But unlike Avery, he understands how emotionally treacherous things can be when it involves The Big O.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: There’s a Booksmartish amount of cram-it-all-in-before-it’s-all-over plot here, and it drafts a little on Easy A’s ideas. The screenplay itself makes direct reference to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, 10 Things I Hate About You, American Pie and a scattering of ’80s sex-coms.
Performance Worth Watching: Credit Abdalla for working within an appealing genre comfort zone while also rendering her character outside the norm for movies with horny teen protagonists.
Memorable Dialogue: Avery faces a critical issue: “Give me global warming. Give me world hunger. But a personal problem?”
Sex and Skin: An unusually small amount of nudity (none!) for the amount of lewdness (tons!).
Our Take: It’s nice to see the nerds/jocks/mean girls clique-happy dynamic fade into the rearview for this type of teen sex-com. Avery is a reasonably complex protagonist working her way through a predictable set of maladroit experiences leading to self-discovery, then landing at a reasonably complex conclusion. Do you think love is the missing variable from her algorithm? No spoilers, but that one comes at us like a slow-moving steamroller.
The film’s execution – its consistent tone and empathy for its characters – gives the film a strong enough foundation to assure the plot’s comfort-food elements are wholly acceptable. It’s Sex Appeal’s comedy that tends to flounder. It relies on overlong, overly silly visual euphemisms (a rocket launch, a spelunking mission) for key sequences, and takes a clumsy stab at political commentary when Avery’s interrogation of a male student flusters him to no end: “I’d get canceled if I asked you that question!” he moans. But Osteen makes good use of a colorful supporting cast and, crucially, makes sure the heartfelt moments land with a little dramatic oomph. We may see some of those moments coming, but they aren’t entirely unwelcome.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Sex Appeal is a reasonably satisfying neo-sex romp that has just enough lighthearted smarts to merit a recommendation.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.