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‘Sex Appeal’ is appealing enough

January 17, 2022
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The relationship between teenagers and sex has long been a popular theme to be explored in movies. The discourse around that relationship has changed, to be sure, and the films have themselves changed accordingly. But rest assured – the teen sex comedy isn’t going anywhere.

That said, we’ve come a long way since films like “Porky’s” or even “American Pie.” Teenagers and their relationship to sex – and the viewing public’s relationship with that relationship – has continued to become something a bit more nuanced as time has passed.

“Sex Appeal,” a Hulu original offering directed by Talia Osteen from a script by Tate Hanyok, is an effort to engage with society’s ever-evolving perspective on teenage sexuality. While it doesn’t do much in the way of breaking new ground, it does manage to have some fun with the standard tropes of the genre and even trots out a few unexpected stylistic flourishes that elevate it somewhat beyond the usual standards of streaming teen fare. The end result is a film that might not be life-changing but is still a perfectly charming and funny way to spend some time.

Avery (Mika Abdalla) is a type-A overachiever, a high school senior who has devoted her life to her studies. She’s a for-real genius, one who has focused on academic pursuits at the expense of typical social development – this despite the best efforts of her two moms (Fortune Feimster and Margaret Cho) as well as her mom’s girlfriend Kim (Rebecca Henderson).

Avery’s aiming to repeat as champion of STEMcon, an annual academic competition that features the country’s best and brightest high school minds. However, there’s a bit more to it – see, her long-distance boyfriend Casper (Mason Versaw) will be there and he’s making it clear that he’d like their relationship to proceed to the next level physically … an idea that has Avery feeling a bit nervous. She hates the idea of being bad at anything. Including sex.

But when the STEMcon prompt arrives, asking participants to develop a solution to a personal problem, Avery sees a path to killing two birds with one stone. She decides that she will create an algorithm to help guide sexual novices toward being prepared for the act, but despite her best efforts – including multiple frank conversations with a number of her peers – she struggles with gathering data.

Her solution? Enlist her closest friend and former experimental assistant Larson (Jake Short) to engage in some more … hands-on research efforts.

Of course, what is intended to be a clinical experiment devoid of emotional attachment goes awry. See, Larson still carries a torch for Avery, even after having a clumsy romantic advance rebuffed a couple of years earlier. And as those feelings return to the surface, Avery finds herself questioning her own detachment – she began this process to prepare for her experience with Casper, but what if there’s more to her connection to Larson than she previously thought?

“Sex Appeal” doesn’t offer a lot in the way of surprises. There’s something healthy about the way it centers a young woman in the frame, even if her actual relationship with sex is a bit fraught. And it does take a few stabs at upending certain stereotypes with regard to teenagers and their relative attitudes toward sex and by extension love. But ultimately, you’ve seen a lot of this before.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad time, though. The filmmakers have made some interesting choices; there’s a dream-like quality to the more sexually charged moments that I found pretty entertaining, with a bunch of surreal set pieces standing in for the acts themselves (as an example, there are a couple of Esther Williams-esque synchronized swimming scenes that are both weird and kind of delightful).

Ultimately, the most important aspect of it all is the fact that no one treats this young woman’s desire to better understand the logistics of sex as anything other than perfectly reasonable. That attitude – that sex is normal and healthy – doesn’t always garner the focus it should in these sorts of films. Is it odd and somewhat extreme? Sure, but it’s a comedy – that’s how it works.

“Sex Appeal” also benefits from the charms of its ensemble. Abdalla is asked to do a lot of heavy lifting here, but she manages both he comedic aspects and the heavier emotional connections pretty well. There’s a goofy earnestness to Short that works well opposite the twitchy high energy of Abdalla; the two of them have decent chemistry. Feimster, Cho and Henderson are all a hoot, coming together to provide a weird-yet-healthy homelife dynamic – each gets a few moments to let their comedic bona fides fly. The rest of the high school cohort makes for a delightfully quirky bunch – highlights include Belissa Escobedo, Paris Jackson and a short but absolutely killer monologue from Ben Wang (you’ll know it when you see it) – and while the adults largely take a back seat, everyone handles their business as necessary.

Like I said, there aren’t a lot of surprises in “Sex Appeal,” save the aforementioned stylization of sexuality, which was an interesting and effective choice. As for the rest, the lessons learned are familiar ones, even if the trappings surrounding those lessons are rather more enlightened than the ones we’ve seen in the past. But this familiarity doesn’t breed contempt – it works.

“Sex Appeal” is perfectly fine, the sort of movie that will probably resonate much more effectively with audiences considerably younger than myself. Even so, the fact that this film is light years beyond the teen sex comedy efforts of previous decades is more than enough to recommend it. “Sex Appeal” is appealing enough.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 17 January 2022 11:43

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