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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Review: Blockers (2018)

* * *

Directors: Kay Cannon
Starring: Leslie Mann, John Cena, Ike Barinholtz

It's hard to believe that a comedy centering on a teenage sex pact and featuring a scene involving "butt chugging" - which I sincerely hope is not a real thing that people do, but I'm certainly not going to google it to find out - could be as sweet and insightful as Blockers. That's not to say that the film doesn't have its problems - there is an entire sequence which, in the wake of the "Me Too" movement, I'm surprised could make it into the final cut of a movie (and apparently having elicited no controversy, as far as I can tell) - but it's leagues better than most movies of its kind and it's terrifically funny, too.

Blockers is about three teenage girls and one of each of their parents, because I suppose being about three teenage girls and six parents would make the story too crowded. Lisa (Leslie Mann) is mother to Julie (Kathryn Newton), whose father has never been in the picture. Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) is the father to Sam (Gideon Adlon) and is acrimoniously divorced from her mother Brenda and the fact that they hate each other is how Brenda ends up relegated to the sidelines of the story, which is sort of a shame since she's played by the very funny June Diane Raphael. Mitchell (John Cena) is father to Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and is still happily married to her mother (Sarayu Rao), who simply refuses to participate in Mitchell and Julie's plot to stop their daughters from having sex with their dates on prom night because she thinks they're being unnecessarily hysterical - although she also doesn't do anything to try to stop them from following their kids from party to party during the course of the evening. Unlike Mitchell and Julie, Hunter isn't worried about his daughter having sex with her boyfriend because he's certain that she's gay and closeted; he's just along for the ride because he wants to make sure that Julie and Mitchell don't ruin her night.

The catalyst of the narrative is Julie and Kayla's decision to lose their virginity on prom night - Julie to her boyfriend (Graham Phillips), Kayla to her lab partner (Miles Robbins) - which Sam, who is in fact closeted, decides to go along with because she doesn't want to feel left out; but it's the dynamics of the friendship that drive the story, rather than the sexual hijinks which usually take center stage in this type of story. The girls have been friends since kindergarten but while Julie and Kayla's bond has remained strong, Sam feels insecure about her place in the triumvirate because she feels set apart by the fact that she has this secret that she hasn't told them and doesn't know if she can tell them. If they suspect that Sam might be gay, they never say so, though they do take it as a matter of course that Sam isn't going to join the pact even though she has a boyfriend. Although sex is the major part of the film's premise, it's ultimately something of a MacGuffin, used simply to provide context to explore the dynamics of this friendship and the anxiety that all three girls have that once they graduate high school and go their separate ways towards adulthood, their friendship will cease - the pact itself isn't even about sex; it's about Julie and Kayla (and, later, Sam) manufacturing a way to remain bonded through a shared milestone.

But Blockers is about the friendship between the parents, too. As the film opens, right at the beginning with the three girls meeting on the first day of kindergarten, Hunter optimistically states that since their kids are now friends, that they're going to be friends, too. This is unfortunate since Hunter, whose repeated suggestion in that first scene that the three of them go grab a drink is like a shorter version of Sideshow Bob stepping on a series of rakes - it's funny, then not that funny, then absurd, then absurd to the point of brilliance - is the one who ends up exiled from the friend group as a result of his messy divorce, which also results in him becoming an absent father. However, while Lisa and Mitchell ostensibly remain friends, he's frustrated by the fact that she keeps ghosting him. Just as the kids are anxious that no longer being at school together might end their friendship, the parents also feel anxious that their kids being at school together is the only thing holding their friendship together. This emphasis on the actual relationships between the characters gives the film an emotional weight that so many films like it lack.

Which is a good thing since the film's approach to sex is a mixed bag of good and bad. On the good side the film directly addresses how messed up it is that society tends to view a girl's virginity as a matter of her moral character, as something that must be preserved lest she cease to be "pure," while a boy's virginity is simply seen as something that, once lost, is a thing to be celebrated. The film doesn't want us to root for Mitchell and Lisa to succeed in their plan; it wants us to see what they're doing as increasingly ridiculous as they get themselves into more and more extreme situations in the pursuit of their goal.

On the bad side there's that problematic sequence which involves Mitchell and Hunter breaking into the house of a couple who are in the midst of a blindfolded sex game. In order to keep from being discovered when they come into contact with the husband and wife (who have been making their way across the house from opposite ends trying to find each other), Hunter strips down and pretends to be the husband, while Mitchell very reluctantly pretends to be the wife. All Mitchell does is "playfully" scratch at the chest of the husband under the guise of being the wife, which is maybe not that bad, but Hunter ends up having his genitals grabbed by the wife. This is played for laughs and maybe the film thinks it's fine because it certainly treats Hunter as though he's the victim in this, but... deceiving someone into having sexual contact with someone other than the person they intended to have that contact with is a form of sexual assault, which makes her the victim in that scene even if she doesn't know it. It's gross and it's disappointing in a film that's generally fairly insightful. In spite of that, Blockers is a solid and generally entertaining movie. Maybe just skip that sequence.

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