(by Dustin Putman
17-year-old Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) adores John Hughes movies and wishes her life could be like the characters she watches in them, but it's, like, totally not. Akin to what 1996's "Scream" did for the slasher genre, the exuberant, whip-smart "Easy A" does for teen comedies, both satirically subverting conventions in a slyly self-knowing way while, at the same time, having no choice but to adhere to them when they present themselves to the feisty protagonist. In many ways, "Easy A" is deceptively groundbreaking; it's so bouncy and funny and effortlessly entertaining that viewers might assume at the onset it doesn't have anything new to offer or anything of substance to say. What they soon discover is that their first assumptions are wrong, very much in the same way Olive's classmates are mistaken in their hasty reading of who she is as a person. This isn't just some pandering cinematic throwaway narrowly targeting the high school crowd, but, like 1995's "Clueless" and 2004's "Mean Girls," strong enough to become a lasting, defining motion picture of its respective era. Article continues below
Olive has always had a sterling reputation as a nice girl with a firm head on her shoulders who earns good grades and never gets into trouble. When a harmless fib to tart-mouthed friend Rhiannon (Aly Michalka) that she went on a date with a college guy is misconstrued as meaning that she went all the way with him—gossip that simultaneously is overheard in the restroom by the self-righteously religious Marianne (Amanda Bynes)—word spreads like wildfire across the school grounds. Suddenly Olive is the center of conversation—a feeling that she initially likes enough to agree to pretend to sleep with gay outcast Brandon (Dan Byrd). His reputation will be saved long enough for him to stop getting bullied until he escapes high school, and she'll be able to continue playing along with everyone's presumptions of her. This sounds like a win-win situation, but as Olive presses forward with the charade, dressing provocatively and spreading more false rumors about herself to help out other male peers hoping to receive a popularity boost, her troubled conscience gets the best of her. Olive wanted to make a name for herself, yes, but does she really want to be remembered for being something she's not? Furthermore, she asks herself, is it worse to lie about having sex than it is to actually be doing it?
A major step up for director Will Gluck, who previously helmed 2009's smarmy "Fired Up!," "Easy A" is nothing short of a love letter to the late, great John Hughes; there are references mischievously sprinkled throughout ("Never had one lesson," Olive replies to her father when he catches her strumming a guitar in her bedroom), choice soundtrack recollections (The Thompson Twins' "If You Were Here," beautifully covered by The Cary Brothers, and Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" both play pivotal roles), and even a montage of scenes from classic teen flicks encompassing not only Hughes, but also 1987's "Can't Buy Me Love" and 1989's "Say Anything." Even so, "Easy A" wisely does not rely on past successes to tell its own story, but simply uses them as a way of commenting on the alternate similarities and disparity between real life and fiction. In a terrific, attention-grabbing screenplay by first-time feature writer Bert V. Royal, the film also thoughtfully considers the heavy price of fame (or is it infamy?), the struggle to be one's true self in the face of judging eyes and adolescent pressure, and the thin line in today's technologically savvy times between privacy and what can quickly become widespread information. With shades of 2004's "Saved!" hanging around the fringes, there is also a razor-humored plot thread tackling the narrow-minded hypocrisy inherent within organized religion and the way that this can stop people from seeing things as they truly are.
Emma Stone has been gradually building a strong resumé over the last few years—she was a scene-stealer in 2008's "The House Bunny" and 2009's "Zombieland"—but it is here, in her first solo leading role, that she finally should break through into the upper echelon of today's best and most deservedly in-demand young talents. So honest and yet so naturally funny, Stone comes equipped with brilliant comedic sensibilities and the equally important ability to be nothing less than 100% real in front of the camera. She is utterly winning and gloriously offbeat as Olive Penderghast, delivering a priceless monologue comparing Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" (which she is reading in English class and connects to her own life) with the awful 1995 Demi Moore adaptation; breaking into the exaggerated accent and body language of a Civil War-era Southern belle when she receives a "gentleman caller" at her house, and turning disgust into a gradual, weekend-long obsession with Natasha Bedingfield's "Pocketful of Sunshine" after receiving a musical birthday card from her grandma. There is also a fabulous set-piece where Olive endures an unexpected, whirlwind, hellishly upbeat BFF relationship with Marianne that lasts exactly a half-day. These little quirky details help to flesh Olive out, but what make her so lovable and sympathetic are the vulnerable feelings of insecurity hiding underneath and the morality she fears she is beginning to lose.
A sign of great writing is when every supporting character of note seems to appear wholly formed and fully memorable. The ensemble cast of "Easy A" goes above and beyond expectations, both in terms of their name value and their embracing of small, juicy parts. Patricia Clarkson (2010's "Cairo Time") and Stanley Tucci (2009's "Julie & Julia") breathe invigorating life into the usually standard roles of parents Rosemary and Dill, hilariously attempting to guess the naughty word Olive got sent to the principal (Malcolm McDowell) for using in class and free-spirited in their stories of sexual indiscretion when they were her age. Caring yet laid-back (when the family sits down for movie night, Dill says, "Okay, let's 'Bucket List' this bitch!"), they form a strong, believable family unit without stereotype.
As guidance counselor Mrs. Griffith, Lisa Kudrow (2009's "Bandslam") is delicious as always, making her every line delivery count as she essays a person whose ethics waver upon decidedly shaky ground. As Marianne, Amanda Bynes (2007's "Hairspray") delights in playing against-type the same way Mandy Moore did in "Saved!" Bynes is amusingly nasty and full of herself, yet glimmers of self-doubt and weakness shine through that make her more than just the mean girl. Still, when Mrs. Griffith describes her as "that snotty Jesus freak office aide," it's hard not to nod in acknowledgment of her forthright description. Dan Byrd (2006's "The Hills Have Eyes") is touching as the put-upon Brandon, tired of being treated as a misfit in the California town of Ojai, while Penn Badgley (2009's "The Stepfather") is the one weak link as Olive's central love interest Woodchuck Todd (named after his mascot uniform). Badgley isn't bad in the role, but he is miscast, looking way too old to play a high schooler. With that said, he and Olive share several awesomely sweet moments in the latter half as they get to know each other and he proves to see her for who she is rather than who others think she has become.
Snappily acerbic, laugh-out-loud, and finally perceptive, "Easy A" is a treat to watch unfold—not because the ending is terribly surprising, but because it has been made with such rare high quality for a major-studio release. With the exception of a couple passing spare shots toward the end that try too hard, director Will Gluck never makes a wrong move. The overriding point of the film—that one's choices, including their sex life (or lack thereof), are those for each individual person to make for themselves, and nobody's business but their own—is spoken loud, clear, and powerfully without maudlin backing. Laced with an indelibly chosen soundtrack, each song selection adding to the tone and emotion of each scene, and topped by bright, innovative cinematography by Michael Grady (2009's "Notorious,") above-average for the genre, the picture is a hugely fun time, and then more than that. In Olive is a heroine of uncommonly paralleled spunk, warmth, and originality, a young woman you wish were real just so you could know her outside the confines of movieland. The last shot, playing throughout the end credits as the camera slowly but surely moves down a peaceful country road before turning in a different direction than the arrow signpost points, is a symbolically defiant final capper. As long as she's following what she believes to be right, nothing else—not societal expectations, not doubting naysayers, not even signs on the road—can stop Olive from who she is and where she's going in life. In a weak year for mainstream cinema, "Easy A" stands out as one of the best of the bunch.