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SXSW Review: Blockers

Ah, prom night. It’s most magical evening of your high school life, that most coveted event in every high school student’s four-year career, filled with all manner of awkwardly dance moves, spiked punch bowls, after-parties at that rich senior’s lake house, and – of course – the chance to lose your virginity to someone you’ll realize about a week later still lets their parents dress them.

Hollywood has a long and storied tradition of turning high school into the stuff of R-rated hilarity, from the crude, pastry-violating antics of American Pie to the underseen gawkiness of Premature; prom night is always, in filmmaking terms, the comedic pièce de résistance, overflowing with sight gags and shenanigans. Blockers, the directorial debut of Pitch Perfect screenwriter Kay Cannon, plays in a similar sandbox but, at the same time and in a truly remarkable turn of events, feels like a modern, sharp-minded evolution of the subgenre, one that mines prom night in all its miserable mania for maximum laughs without peddling in any of the sexist, ugly tropes that have often underpinned past American Pie-esque efforts.

How’s that? It’s simple, really. Like Bachelorette, Bridesmaids, Trainwreck, Bad Moms, and Girls Trip before it, Blockers approaches these ideas from a female perspective and in doing so switches out the chauvinistic ingredients of prom-coms past for something both different and patently better: forthright, unabashed female empowerment.

Unlike past prom-night bacchanalias, the movie focuses on three high-school girls, lifelong friends, who make a tongue-in-cheek pact to do the nasty on the big night (refreshingly) for little reason more than that they want to. Diverging from the horny-dude hysteria that underlined American Pie and past movies in this genre, Blockers constructs three thoughtful, funny-as-hell, and matter-of-factly mature female protagonists. Julie (Kathryn Newton, pitch-perfect) knows she’s ready to have sex with her boyfriend of six months. Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan, the movie’s devious wild card) doesn’t want to put too much value on her first time and is gung-ho about the prospect, especially if she can hand-pick the man she wants and have some fun. And Sam (Gideon Adlon, nailing her character’s sweeter, more innocent side without ever depriving her of her power), though still in the process of figuring out her sexuality, is exercising her autonomy in deciding to join the pact, a point illustrated in a wonderful exchange wherein Julie and Kayla assure Sam they have no intention of peer-pressuring her.

In this scene and many others, Blockers handles the relationships between these young friends with a warmth and attention that comes across as love.

As written by Cannon, Julie, Kayla and Sam are an astoundingly funny trio of high-school heroines to follow; as their prom night unfolds, earmarked by the same spectacular mishaps we’ve come to expect from these comedies (a pedal-to-the-metal limo driver here, a bag full of drugs there), it’s heartwarming to watch three clever, capable young women getting their turn at the kind of antic-filled night out usually reserved on screen for dudes.

Of course, there are complications, and Blockers’ come in the form of these girls’ endearing yet overbearing parents, who more or less split the bill with their kids as the film’s other central trio. Single mom Lisa (Leslie Mann, comic dynamite) can’t bear the thought of Julie going off to college and signaling two losses: that of a best friend, and of a purpose. Gruff yet emotional soccer dad Mitchell (John Cena, emerging as the kind of side-splitting meathead Dwayne Johnson lacks the comic timing to embody) is eternally committed to prepping Kayla to be the best version of herself possible, a task he’s already essentially accomplished but feels is complicated by the rude entrance of her bad-boy date, space-cadet drug dealer Connor (Miles Robbins, dopily endearing). And, most touchingly in a screwball way, deadbeat divorcee Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) just wants his estranged daughter Sam to have the best night of her life, in hopes it might open channels of communication with her before she heads off to college.

When these bumbling adults learn of the sex pact – in a hilarious scene that repurposes emoji text (coming in through iMessage on Julie’s left-open computer) as an inscrutable ancient language even the more in-touch-than-his-fellow-adults Hunter can barely decipher – they band together in a desperate attempt to ensure their daughters don’t screw up their lives by having sex too early or with the wrong person. They see it as an admirably quixotic quest; it’s more of a fool’s errand, the parents (Lisa and Mitchell more than the reluctantly tagging-along Hunter) translating their own anxieties onto the lives of kids who’ve got things much more together than the grown-ups.

With this two-pronged structure in place, the kids racing around the city on their big night as their hapless parents struggle to intercept before they can make it to home plate, Blockers reveals itself as a big-hearted, filthy-minded comedy, the kind in which Cena’s muscle-bound softie facing off against a douchey senior in a butt-chugging competition can be played as a weirdly touching (and gaspingly funny) expression of how far one father will go for his daughter.

What’s more: Cannon handles these absurd, off-the-wall proceedings with a deft, warmly compassionate touch, and – in doing so – knocks such scenes out of the park. No matter how gross-out the gags (Gary Cole, as a kinky parent playing a blindfolded game of naked hide-and-go-seek, gets out of the most jaw-dropping), they’re elevated and justified by fitting into the film’s larger narrative of grown-ups who have plenty of growing up to do themselves.

The concept of parents racing against time to stop their daughters from having sex smacks of outdated gender stereotypes; and so it’s nothing short of breathtaking how brilliantly Blockers works instead to ensure its story empowers its young heroes at every turn. The film makes it abundantly clear that, easy as it is to empathize with these anxiety-ridden grown-ups, their mission is completely wrong-headed, and says more about their own fear of the future than their children’s ability to handle what’s inevitable in theirs.

All of this, as well as the overriding control Cannon ensures the young women of Blockers have over their own sexuality and intended conquests, renders the film an unexpectedly fantastic raunchfest for the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Without ever shortchanging its leads – any of them – Blockers crafts a thoughtful and achingly funny story about sex, gender dynamics, and the double standards that society hoists upon teenage girls from every conceivable angle. Thrillingly, it also packages a queer story arc into its busy-but-never-crowded narrative, which should settle for good the eye-rolling Hollywood argument that you can only do so much in a movie like this. Blockers has deceptively tremendous ambition, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a single element it seemed to stretch for.

That’s unmistakably to Cannon’s credit; her vision for these characters, and what their journeys have to say about the coming-of-age our society at large needs to undergo surrounding sexuality, is assured and confident. Without ever appearing preachy, she’s made a mainstream comedy that celebrates and empowers young women, makes obvious the inanity of controlling sexuality in heteropatriarchal terms, and not despite of but because of these elements lands as the flat-out funniest and finest comedy of the year thus far. With Blockers, the bar for raunchy studio sex comedies has been raised to thrilling, unprecedented heights – time’s up on films and filmmakers in this genre who, conditioned by outdated traditions, think they can still get away with less.

9/10

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