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What a girl wants – ‘Blockers’

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Few have shaped the film comedy world in recent years like Judd Apatow. Even if not directly involved, his fingerprints are all over most of the more successful comedic outings of the past decade-plus.

For example, he is not involved in “Blockers,” the new comedy directed by Kay Cannon and written by Brian and Jim Kehoe. However, the film is produced by - among others – Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who definitely cut their teeth beneath the Apatovian umbrella. It’s not a Judd Apatow movie, but it has some of that DNA.

But don’t take that to mean that this is some tossed-off knockoff. “Blockers” is a sharp, funny and surprisingly thoughtful movie, featuring a well-balanced blend of raunchiness and sentimentality, with all of it executed by a talented cast.

It’s almost two movies in one. On one side, you have a group of lifelong friends, a trio of teenaged girls getting ready to graduate high school. Julie (Kathryn Newton, “Lady Bird”), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan, TV’s “Miracle Workers”) and Sam (Gideon Adlon in her feature debut) have been BFFs since their first day of school, but with prom night approaching, they want to do something special together. When Julie decides that prom night will be when she loses her virginity to her boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips, “XOXO”), Kayla and Sam want in – it’s your standard teen comedy sex pact.

On the other side, we have the parents. Lisa (Leslie Mann, “The Comedian”) is Julie’s mom; it has just been the two of them for years and Lisa is struggling a bit with letting go. Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena, “Ferdinand”) is a stay-at-home dad who has passed his love of sports to his daughter, but struggles with the more … feminine aspects of growing up. And Sam’s dad Hunter (Ike Barinholtz, “Bright”) has been out of the picture awhile thanks to a rather unseemly divorce. These three also used to be friends, but have drifted apart as the girls have grown up.

But when they inadvertently find out about the sex pact, they are determined to find a way to undermine and ultimately derail their daughters’ plans. As the girls make their way through the night, each struggling with the idea of sex and how they feel about it in their own way, the parents are in hot pursuit, bound and determined to track down the kids and prevent them from making potentially bad decisions, only to be confronted with the reality of their real reasons for getting involved.

And of course, there are tons of sex jokes and loads of gross-out gags and some slapstick set pieces along the way. That’s how these movies work – “Blockers” is no exception.

Where it IS an exception, however, is in its surprisingly progressive attitude with regards with sexuality – specifically female sexuality. There’s a good deal of agency granted to the young female protagonists; far more than you usually see in this type of comedy. It’s played for laughs, but each one of these women is playing the game rather than merely being the prize. Yes, one half of the plot is devoted to parents attempting to thwart that agency, but we (and even the characters themselves to a degree) are aware of the ridiculousness of that goal.

Of course, the primary consideration for a comedy, beyond any sort of attitude or message it might like to convey, is simple: be funny. And “Blockers” is definitely funny. Not only are there some good laughs to be had via the simple inversion of sex comedy tropes, but both the dialogue and the situations have plenty to offer as well. Some moments are a touch sophomoric and/or over-the-top, but honestly, you’re not seeing this movie for subtle bon mots. Besides, it’s all delivered with such sincerity that even the coarsest bits land gently.

Chalk that up to the ensemble. A lot of the attention has been given to the adult trio – and with good reason. Mann is at her finest when she can harness her gift for harried frenzy and turn it inward; her energy drives her section of the story. Barinholtz has become a Hollywood go-to for a dialed-up frenetic weirdo, but he gives that persona a nice spin here that is surprisingly endearing. And Cena, whose range is never going to be what we call broad, is squarely inside his “sincere meathead” comedic wheelhouse – when used properly, he’s a top-notch supporting player. Other supporting players – Hannibal Burress and Ramona Young as Sam’s stepdad and Kayla’s mom respectively are great and Gary Cole and Gina Gershon show up for a couple of scenes that are just delightful.

But the kids deserve their share of the praise as well. Newton’s Julie is sweet and genuine in all the best ways; she feels the most like an actual high schooler of the three. Adlon is wonderful as the awkward, nerdy Sam; she has her own sweet journey that proves unexpectedly touching. And Viswanathan is a revelation – her character isn’t anything we’ve really seen before in a movie like this and she just crushes each moment. She has some real comedic gifts that I look forward to seeing in the future. The boys (Phillips as Austin, Miles Robbins as drug chef/Kayla’s date Connor, Jimmy Bellinger as theater kid and Sam’s date Chad) aren’t as present, which is as it should be; they’re good in limited action – Bellinger in particular.

“Blockers” is better than you might think. A talented team on both sides of the camera came together to give us a comedy both familiar and forward-thinking (and don’t forget funny) – a rare combo. It’s gross but genuine – raunchy with a heart of gold.

[4.5 out of 5]

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