On the fringes of success since her 2007 appearance in Greg Mottola's Superbad, actress Emma Stone may finally break through with one of Fall 2010's more unexpected surprises, the teen comedy Easy-A.
The film centers around Olive (Stone), a clean-cut high school girl whose one little white lie to her best friend Rhi (Aly Michalka) leads to a drastic change in her life at California's East Ojai High School.
The "little" white lie, that Olive's quiet weekend at home actually included her losing her virginity, leads to her life increasingly running parallel to that of Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlett Letter," a book not so coincidentally being studied in her favorite class with her favorite instructor, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church). Unbeknownst to Olive, the school's resident self-righteous Bible thumper, Marianne (Amanda Bynes), is within hearing distance when the little lie is told and before long this little lie becomes a big rumor.
Director Will Gluck and screenwriter Bert V. Royal explore the comic potential of Easy-A in a variety of ways, intertwining the film's inherent comic value with a surprising and satisfying degree of heartfelt moments that help to turn the film into an emotionally resonant, intellectuallly stimulating and downright entertaining experience.
With her newfound reputation as the East Ojai trollop firmly in place, Olive finds herself in a different run on the high school social structure and serving as a potential savior for the various other high school outcasts including a bullied gay male (Dan Byrd), an overweight peer and a host of other classmates who find a unique way of exchanging favors for a more favorable reputation at East Ojai.
Emma Stone, who has primarily been a supporting player in such films as Zombieland and Superbad, gives a breakout performance here as Olive by infusing the young woman with a delightful blend of innocence, sincerity and growing social confidence. Virtually every moment Stone is on screen feels relaxed, natural and utterly charming with the minor exception of one tearful scene that plays out as a touch forced.
On several occasions, Easy-A references the late teen flick guru John Hughes and it is with his films that Easy-A can most easily be compared. Rather than the excessive bawdiness, fart jokes and potty mouth dialogue lazily utilized so frequently these days in teen films, Easy-A manages to take a higher, yet no less funny, ground towards becoming one of the most intelligent and witty teen films in quite some time.
While Easy-A is squarely centered on Stone's Olive, the film's supporting players are equally as impressive. Aly Michalka, one half of the Disney pop duo Aly & AJ, delights as Olive's sex-obsessed best friend who first pulls this big secret out of Olive. Amanda Bynes is utter perfection, despite an abysmal make-up job, as the scripture spouting, Christian ditty singing Marianne, the sort of stereotypical Christian who would have been right at home in that Christian high school satire from a few years back, Saved. Dan Byrd, whom Heartland Film Festival fans may remember from the festival's Outlaw Trail but most are more likely to remember from the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, gives what may arguably be the film's most emotionally satisfying performance as the bullied gay friend of Amanda.
Among the film's adults, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson shine most brightly as Amanda's always understanding and affirming parents. So many actors/actresses would have turned these roles into one-note caricatures, but in the hands of Tucci and Clarkson they become the kind of parents you hope you're going to have, well mostly, if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. Neither Thomas Haden, Malcolm McDowell or Lisa Kudrow are given much to do, but they play the comedy off well and maintain the film's blended tons of heart and humor.
As one might expect from a film such as this one, there are moments when reality is stretched pretty darn thing including the whole stretching out of the parallel between Olive's experience and The Scarlet Letter that ends up including Olive's wearing of outfits that would likely be a bit too extreme even in a California high school. Similarly, while the story is lived out by a loose ends tying webcast, the webcast becomes increasingly difficult to buy into and starts to feel a touch too gimmicky by film's end.
Stretched reality aside, Easy-A could very well be a star making role for lead Emma Stone and this PG-13 rated film is a solid alternative for parent/child bonding and post-viewing conversations. In keeping with the spirit of John Hughes, Easy-A resolves in such a way that feels both natural and well deserved considering the trials and tribulations of Olive. It's a rare teen film that manages to capture the high school experience with any degree of integrity and truth while also capturing the sheer lunacy of it all. Easy-A may not quite live up to its name, but its B+ puts it on the high end of 2010's youth-oriented films.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic