Writer/director Maggie Carey’s The To Do List is so sex-positive, it borders on propaganda. At the very least, it functions as a sort of Ethical Slut 101, an instruction on the hilarity of sex and the joys of portraying exploratory women onscreen. “Let’s get to work, vagina!” says protagonist Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) when setting out on the journey. A virgin who hasn’t so much as kissed a guy in years, Brandy is determined to conquer sex during the summer before her freshman year in college. She creates a list of various acts she wants to experience – “makeout,” “fingerbang,” “dry hump,” "orgasm" – and ticks them off one by one, employing friends and coworkers as lab partners in the experiment. The Irina Dunn-quoting Brandy so clinical about the project that it drives the boys crazy. "You gave me a handjob. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?" sniffs one aspiring suitor. "No," she responds. "It’s a handjob."
The To Do List is set in Boise, Idaho, in 1993, and it's a blur of ’90s nostalgia: There are Swatches, Caboodles, pagers, devil sticks, Hypercolor, step aerobics, SnackWells, and Eddie Vedder jokes. It's tempting to interpret Carey's decision set this film 20 years in the past as an attempt to make up for lost time in the field of cinematic depictions of blossoming female sexuality. But I think the truth is simpler – Carey was 18 20 years ago, and she is portraying the pre-texting world that she knows. Additionally, early ’90s pop culture was uncommonly liberal for a moment (RuPaul often talks about slipping through a window that opened briefly, allowing a drag queen to become a cultural phenomenon). The To Do List's retro set pieces enhance its free spirit – the unedited version of the 2 Live Crew's 1989 hit "Me So Horny" plays over the opening credits. When Fresh Kid Ice's voice booms over the sound system, "Put your lips on my dick, and suck my asshole too," it hits the audience like a joke. That's something you just don't hear straight guys talking about in pop culture. Times have weirdly changed. There are ways in which our culture has regressed.
And that's why The To Do List is so refreshing. It gets so many of the small details right (the hair alone is a feat — Plaza's bangs, Rachel Bilson's tacky highlights, Connie Britton's scrunchie realness), along with the big ideas. The movie's real talk is packaged in a stilted, almost surreal tone — Plaza’s eyes alone play out their own mini-melodramas in every scene. In a what seems like a hat tip to Beverly Hills 90201, many of the actors are hilariously older than the teens they portray (Plaza is 29). "You feel like Marky Mark looks," Brandy tells a particularly hunky object of her desire in once scene. There is an already notorious masturbation scene, in which a determined-to-orgasm Brandy moans to herself, "I am not a quitter! I am not a quitter!" There are several jokes about the phrase "like-like" to denote infatuation ("Do you, like, like-like him back?”). The script is infinitely quotable. This movie deserves to be the summer's sleeper hit.
The To Do List is bawdy, almost gross-out at times (there is a particularly hilarious freeze frame on semen-spitting), but underneath the broadness is a nuanced handling of sex. In its real/not real tone, it explores the way in which sex is simultaneously a big deal (enough to be central to the movie's universe) and not a very big deal at all (because it's fun, quick, and easily available). Carey never punishes her young hero with disease, pregnancy, or shunning for her promiscuity. She is just as daring and experimental as her protagonist, and the overall effect is as endearing, too.