And Now For Something Completely Different: The To Do List, In a World…, and The Need For a New Perspective
The idea that Hollywood has a sexism problem is nothing new, nor particularly controversial. After a summer full of blockbusters that largely ignore female characters (The biggest moment for a woman in Star Trek Into Darkness involved taking off her clothes, and films like After Earth, Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger relegate women to the sidelines without a single thought), its hard not to feel like the story of a brooding male facing off against impossible odds is more than a little played out. Blockbuster fatigue isn’t new, but it grows with each tepid entry into an overstuffed canon. Yet the summer of 2013 has quietly counter-programmed several of these over-blown testosterone fests with two movies that subtly, but insistently, make the point that its time for Hollywood to take notice of the other half of the population. Both The To Do List and In a World… make a case for women I am shocked to say still needs to be made in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Both seem to say, “Look at me. Listen to me. I have ideas, I have stories, I have value,” and in doing so, they have made two of the most important (and, for that matter, enjoyable) movies of this subpar summer season, movies that are different not only for their scale and focus, but for their particularly female viewpoint.
The To Do List, written and directed by Maggie Carey in her feature film debut, follows high school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) through a sexual awakening that leads her into an effort to gain experience before she leaves for college. Brandy approaches the goal like any of her previous academic successes: she makes a list of sex acts she would like to engage in and begins checking them off with a single-minded determinedness that is inspiring and often very humorous.
Along the way, she is supported by her best friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), her more experienced older sister (Rachel Bilson), and her mother (Connie Britton), and hampered by, well, nobody. While her conservative father (Clark Gregg) would prefer not to talk about sex with her, and her goofy boss at the local pool (Bill Hader) wants to make sure she is safe, no one in the film is particularly shocked or outraged by Brandy’s quest. The term “slut” comes up a few times, but never pejoratively, and when one of her conquests (Donald Glover) describes her efforts to the lifeguard she wants to eventually deflower her (Scott Porter), he calls her efforts “really mature.”
The movie is a frank, often hysterically funny tale of the bumpy road into sexual experience, replete with various awkward encounters, bruised feelings (mostly those of Johnny Simmons’ Cameron, a nerdy lab partner who vies for Brandy’s affections and often finds himself on the receiving end of her various efforts), and some surprisingly relaxed hang-out moments set around the swimming pool where various characters work as lifeguards. At its best, The To Do List is a blazingly original comedy of sexual awakening, with a game, clever cast. The film stumbles, when it does, as it shifts too far into gross-out comedy clichés, the most explicit of which is its repeated (and repeated, and repeated) reliance on various characters walking in on Brandy in flagrante delicto.
While it doesn’t work for me comedically, the repeated “somebody walks in” gag actually serves a much more important purpose, and gets at the core of what I do love about The To Do List: It is vital that Brandy be seen in confident control of her sexuality. It would be one thing for Brandy to take control of her own sexual identity behind closed doors, but that she does so, while bucking no reprobation, in front of a litany of intruders, proves something much more important. It indicates that Brandy is not only personally empowered, but that this sort of approach to her sexuality, or, rather, any approach to sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, no matter who knows about it. A lesser film would have Brandy constantly humiliated by being caught mid-coitus, but The To Do List makes a joke of how blasé she is about the whole thing. When Bill Hader asks her what would have happened if he hadn’t been there to walk in on one of her trysts, she quips, “I think I would have swallowed,” and that is that.
The film champions Brandy for owning her sexuality, which turns The To Do List into something more than just a gender-switched teen sex comedy. This mentality is at odds with the film’s period setting (the action takes place in Boise, Idaho in 1993), but lends it a message far more important than its sort of muddled “sex is sometimes important and sometimes not a big deal” moral. The film is transgressive simply for how matter-of-factly it treats Brandy’s exploits. That she takes what she wants (and, to be clear, what is freely offered) without shame is good, but that she is willing to stand up for her quest when constantly caught in the act gives the film a subtle thematic runner far more significant than first meets the eye.
Where The To Do List champions a woman for the way she reacts to being seen, In a World…, the screenwriting and directorial debut of Lake Bell, is about a woman’s quest to be heard in an industry and a society that would much rather tune her out. Bell stars as Carol, a vocal coach in a constant struggle to break into voice-over work. To call that industry “male dominated” is a massive understatement: both in the film and in the reality it closely resembles, voice over is an almost exclusively male profession, and Bell is criticized and condescended to at every turn simply for trying to provide a different perspective. Her father Sam (Fred Melamed) is a titan in the industry who casually and callously ignores his daughter’s dreams, suggesting she focus on a field more suited to her particular talents. When he is not hectoring his daughter to stay out of a man’s world, he is trading stories of sexual exploits with his protégé Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), a smarmy charmer who laughs at the idea of a woman trying to take a job from him.
Bell cleverly literalizes the struggle most women face by making Carol’s central quest, both literally and figuratively, to be heard in a society that would just as soon ignore her concerns. The film is very apparent about a talented woman being shouted down by the men around her, but Bell also handles this theme in more subtle ways in several of the film’s subplots. A story focused on the marriage of Michaela Watkins (playing Bell’s sister) and Rob Corddry mirrors many of the main plot’s points about the power of the male voice and the way female expression can be subsumed by it. The film is also smart about the way this can creep insidiously into its characters’ lives, as when Bell is seduced by the power of Gustav’s voice, and takes time to make the point that not only women are being silenced, as in an inspired sequence where the driven Bell ignores her love interest Louis (Demitri Martin) until he is forced to result to drastic measures to get her attention.
In a World… is betrayed by an excess of ambition, as Bell piles subplot upon subplot until the film’s brilliant focus is subsumed in a sea of storylines, yet it makes its points forcefully and repeatedly: there are viewpoints out there being left on the table simply because of who voices them and what sex organs they happen to possess. It’s no secret that Hollywood has a pronounced gender imbalance, and the film takes this on both directly and more subtly. Carol spends much of the film literally trying to make her voice heard, while Bell lets her witty script and collaborative nature speak for itself.
In a summer and in a system where male voices and viewpoints dominate and women are choked out, Maggie Carey and Lake Bell have made great arguments for inclusion that just so happen to be enveloped within movies that are smart, funny, and unique. They have made movies that argue women deserve to be seen and to be heard with agendas that are largely beside the point of the laughs and the pathos their films deliver. Neither film is perfect (what directorial debut ever is?), but both are forceful arguments for a new voice in cinema, and prove that filmmaking that thinks outside the narrow white male perspective can be vital, smart, and engrossing work. We can, and should, challenge mainstream movies to be better, but we should also put our money where our mouths are and seek out movies that reflect the world as we’d like to see it. If only Hollywood would look, and listen, they might find there’s a vast and virtually untapped wellspring of ideas right in front of their eyes.
– Jordan Ferguson