more sophisticated and perceptive than anything to come out of the American Pie and Hangover franchises, The To-Do
List is writer/director Maggie Carey’s debut feature. It’s a debut marred
by some formal snafus, an overindulgence in its 1990s period backdrop, and some
jarring tonal twists that are more at home with the aforementioned franchises
than this film. But in spite of its freshmen missteps, The To-Do List’s overarching treatment toward woman and sex is
uniquely realized and surprisingly free of cynicism.
Unpopular valedictorian Brandy Clark (Plaza) is humiliated by her fledgling encounter with a hot guy. Embarrassed but not defeated, the stone-faced precision that she applies to her studies is displaced to rectifying her sexual experiences. Composing a list of sex acts, Brandy looks to check them off. She’s not entirely sure of the meaning of half of them, with rim jobs and pearl necklaces registering to her as hilariously literal. Plaza’s probably not the best vessel for Carey’s dialogue, though the first half of the film she serves the material well. It’s when the film requires Plaza to come across as emotionally conflicted that her delivery begins to falter.
Thankfully, there’s a nice mix of familiar faces that come along throughout The To-Do List that serve to cushion the proceedings. None of these characters are especially well-realized, though scenes involving Donald Glover and Adam Samberg establish the unique ear Carey has for dialogue and comedy. Bill Hader ends up being the film’s most interesting character, even if narratively he’s disposable if not for his manic energy. A scene-stealing moment involving his impression of Eddie Vedder is kind of one of the most hilarious things ever put to screen – both for the actual moment and the little gestures he makes afterwards.
The 90s backdrop gives the film’s narrative conceit validity (Google was not at these character’s fingertips), though Carey rarely allows the mise-en-scene to flourish on its own, interjecting trapper-keepers and skorts through blunt force rather than subtle touches. Cinematographer Doug Emmet’s visual palette felt odd at first, but the VHS-esque presentation adds a lot to the film’s thematic touchstones. It’s simply unfortunate that these various components only sporadically align. The To-Do List is only left to sputter when the talent and writing takes a dip, as is the case when Plaza quite literally bites into a piece of shit.
Still, the real bite of The To-Do List is on how Plaza’s character explores her sexuality. Carey’s treatment here isn’t for some vast sexual epiphany that tends to be the case with women in so many teen films. Instead, Carey is resolute in establishing that sex is a necessary if at times gross part of life. And by creating a character with this general mindset, she subverts the typical by conveying a reality. It’s the fact that the film posits this reality that makes some of the film’s final act dramatics come across as hokey and ill-conceived. It’s in the mistakes we learn though: perhaps we’ll get a little better the second time.