A film review by Craig J. Koban November 29, 2013


2013, R, 104 mins.


Aubrey Plaza as Brandy  /  Johnny Simmons as Cameron  /  Bill Hader as Willy  /  Alia Shawkat as Fiona  /  Rachel Bilson as Amber  /  Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Duffy  /  Andy Samberg as Van  /  Connie Britton as Mrs. Clark  /  Clark Gregg as Judge Clark  /  Donald Glover as Adam

Written and directed by Maggie Carey

There is hardly anything original, per se, about the teen sex comedy THE TO DO LIST.  Like so many of its countless predecessors, it concerns a sexually inexperienced and virginal high school student that desperately wants to become deflowered by the resident hottie, all while trying to introduce herself and learn about the trials and tribulations of intercourse.  Clearly, films about young adults dealing with their inherent sexual anxieties and ignorance are a relative dime-a-dozen, but THE TO DO LIST offers up a wonderful bit of role reversal in the sense that it’s staunchly from the female perspective...and how rare is it indeed to have a genre film like this that’s not dominated by honey, testosterone-laced young men.  That, and the film is far better acted and written than many others that have been offered up to us as of late. 

The film also benefits greatly by the presence of Aubrey Plaza, a deceptively beautiful young actress that always manages to carry films that she’s in – whether in brief cameos or full-on leading roles – with her snarky awkwardness and frisky manner of inhabiting scenes with her wonderfully droll deadpan wit.   In the film Plaza plays an early 1990’s era high school student named Brandy Klark that, as the film opens, gives her valedictorian address to her fellow Boise, Idaho students, but is greeted with mostly venomous boos and insults.  She’s the top academic in her school, but her uber keener status has made her a social outcast.  Worse yet is that, yes, she’s still a virgin.  Her only real friends (Alias Shawkat and Sarah Steele) do lend her some moral support, but nonetheless still pressure her to finally “get the deed done.”  

They take the poor and hapless Brandy to graduation party, where she becomes instantly smitten with the resident jock, Rusty Waters (Scott Porter).  Even though she’s totally fixated on the hunky young lad, Brandy is still smart enough to realize that her sexual inexperience will make it rather difficult to score with him.  It is at this point when she concocts a one-woman mission for herself to complete.  She plans a massive list of illicit sexual activities (many of which certainly earn the film it’s R rating, and I will abstain from mentioning them here in order to keep this review PG-13) that she wishes to more fully understand and conquer…all of which she hopes to before her summer is over.  



She preps for her new self-imposed assignment with a geeky earnestness, kind of akin to how she would, no doubt, prepare for a high school final exam.  Her initial progress proves highly discomfiting (remember, this is the 90’s, so no Google exists for her to do research!), but as she goes through a number of partners – including a long-time pal of hers that wants to break past the friendzone, Cameron (Johnny Simmons) - and becomes more experienced, she begins to make the successful transition from nerd girl to sexual dynamo, but learns a lot about love in the process.  Her ultimate end game is to become deflowered to Rusty, but along the way her extracurricular sextivities with Cameron not only prepares her for such a day, but it also proves to complicate her friendship with him that much more.  

THE TO DO LIST marks the feature film directorial debut of Maggie Carey, and even though her screenplay does manage to adhere to several more slavish formulas and conventions of the romcom genre, it still scores big points for novelty in terms of given the film a purposeful period setting and for how well she writes her characters.  Setting the film in the early 1990’s is kind of oddly fitting, seeing as Brandy does not have vast access to the Internet to help her through discovering what – ahem – a handjob is.  As a result, this forces the clumsy girl to experience each one of the activities on her list first hand, and the film has a remarkable frankness when it comes to its high raunch quotient.  More hysterical is the fact that Brandy approaches it all with a semi-detached brainiac focus as if she were in a Science class lab, which helps give the film a sense of offbeat and loveable charm.  It should be noted that there is not much, if any, actual nudity of graphic sex in the film; it’s more about the reactions by Brandy and her partners upon completing the sex acts on her list.  Granted, some scenes push even the boundaries of the film’s already hard-R rating. 

Plaza is just the right kind of actress for this film.  What she does so effortlessly in THE TO DO LIST is to fully inhabit the mind and soul of her chronic overachieving academic, and the manner that Brandy approaches her mission with such a clinical eye helps to not only make her experiences funny, but it also helps to downplay many scenes of in-your-face crudeness.  Brandy is disarmingly attractive – like Plaza – and her appeal is of the under-the-radar sorts, but what truly makes her such a winning and engaging creation is her inner vulnerability and clumsiness.  She dives headfirst into each new graphic sexual activity with a real gusto, even when she often has no idea whatsoever as to precisely what she’s supposed to do in many of these encounters.  The recurring gag of the film is that Brandy treats her assignment just like any other school assignment, but along the way she begins to learn about true intimacy and what having sex actually means for both partners.  Plaza can handle the film’s more overtly comedic scenes in her sleep, but she's also a sly actress for imbuing some humanity in her role and the film. 

THE TO DO LIST has its share of equally funny and nuanced side performances as well, especially by the great Clarke Gregg and Connie Britton, who both appear as Brandy’s ultra-conservative father and more liberated mother respectively.  Gregg in particular is amusing for how uncomfortable he is in scenes as he attempts to be an all-knowing/all-protective paternal figure over Brandy, whereas Britton’s mom is shockingly candid in terms of the sexual advice she relays to Brandy, much to her daughter’s wide-eyed amazement.  Johnny Simmons also generates some of the film’s better laughs at the expense of being on the receiving end of many of Brandy’s attempts at getting items checked off her list as quickly as possible.  Then there is Brandy’s sister (Rachel Bilson), who unleashes strings of F-bomb riddled insults at her sister at times that would make the mobsters of GOODFELLAS blush with envy.   

Again, the very premise of THE TO DO LIST really is hardly anything new for this ageless genre.  The whole notion of a virgin that yearns to have her first sexual encounter with her ideal mate while another more meaningful one waits in the wings has been done to literal death before.  Everything about the film’s essential story framework is pretty preordained and lacks surprises.  Yet, what’s ultimately surprising about THE TO DO LIST is that it’s a boundaries-busting sex farce that manages to be sweet and sentimental without it coming off as blatantly obvious or phony.  The film also overcomes its overt familiarity with the presence of Aubrey Plaza, who always seems to bring a wonderful level of unpredictable mischief to every scene she occupies here.  A lesser talent headlining the film would have made THE TO DO LIST all but cheaply disposable, but Plaza gives it a delectably quirkiness through and through.

  H O M E