The high school movie has played an important role in American cinema ever since the 1950s, when films like Richard Brooks’ Blackboard Jungle and Nicholas Ray’s seminal Rebel Without a Cause introduced audiences to the burgeoning concept of teenagers as a culturally significant mass movement. But the genre as we know it today really blossomed in the 1980s, when John Hughes perfectly captured the modern high school experience with films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Although some filmmakers have forged a new path with it comes to reflecting the youth experience, such as Catherine Hardwicke’s hard-hitting Thirteen or the slew of torture porn copies that use morally ambiguous adolescents as easy bait, most teen movies remain faithful to Hughes’s tried and tested formula. Easy A is such a film, but not only does it fully appreciate its cinematic roots – at times, explicity referencing various Hughes classics – but it plays on the trappings of the genre to great effect.
Olive (Emma Stone) is a 17-year-old strait-laced student who feels unremarkable in every sense; she has no issues with her kooky parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci), gets good grades and blends in with the rest of the student body at her Californian high school. But when she lies to her best friend (Aly Michalka) about losing her virginity and is overheard by the school’s self-appointed moral guardian Marianne (Amanda Bynes), the news soon spreads like wildfire. At first buoyed by the fact that she is getting noticed, Olive takes steps to cement her party girl reputation; but when rumours begin getting out of hand, she finds herself becoming a social pariah. And by the time Olive realises that honesty really is the best policy, she may have ruined not only her good name, but also her chance of finally bagging her long-term crush Todd (Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgley).
Although the message running through the heart of Easy A – a title referring to the red ‘A for Adulterer’ that Olive pins to herself like the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel The Scarlett Letter – is run-of-the-mill, the way that the film is constructed is not. To frame the story as a webcast from Olive confessing the truth behind her own story was a masterstroke; her quick-witted, satirical commentary on her own life means it never becomes pious or cloying.
And taking its cue from that Hughes back catalogue, Bert V Royal’s script underlines its themes of identity, individuality and integrity with razor sharp dialogue, a colourful and sympathetic cast of characters and an upbeat tempo helped along by a killer soundtrack. And at the heart of it all is a beguiling performance from Stone; in her hands, Olive is an instantly likeable heroine, her girl next door charm and sharp humour driving the film. And while it may be something of a narrative stretch to imagine that modern high school students aged 17 and above would react quite so vehemently to the news that one of their number had been sexually promiscuous, Olive is well defined enough to keep the audience alongside.
Also worth a mention are Clarkson and Tucci, utterly endearing as Olive’s parents – even if, again, their laid back parenting style is surely the stuff of fantasy – and Byrne, who gives a whole new meaning to the word prim as Marianne. In fact, the only thing that falls a bit flat is the subplot involving Thomas Haden Church’s hip teacher and his woefully misguided guidance councellor wife, played by Lisa Kudrow. While Church is likeable enough on his own, their relationship is thinly sketched and rather miserable; not necessarily a problem for minor characters, but as their fate is the catalyst for the film’s denouement, it’s a jarring element to an otherwise seamless story.
It’s not enough, however, to bring Easy A down and, by the time Olive finds the courage to stand up for herself you’ll be cheering her on. Like most other teen comedies before it, it may be a complete flight of fancy when compared to the real American high school experience, but nevertheless it’s smart, funny and totally endearing.
UK Release Date: October 22, 2010