LOS ANGELES - Coming of age comedies are fraught with seemingly limitless pitfalls, necessitating a well-honed screenplay and persuasive performances to assure audience allegiance. So with consistently entertaining characters and infectious humor, writer-director Maggie Carey's "The To Do List" delivers well above expectations.
Even as 1993 valedictorian of her Boise high school class, mathlete Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) can't escape the ridicule of many classmates for her goody-good image and lack of worldliness. Facing her first year in university as a virginal freshman, Brandy decides to reevaluate her priorities, especially after a drunken mix-up at her very first kegger results in a mistaken make-out session with too-hot Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), the No. 1 object of lust among all her classmates.
Brandy quickly tosses her college planning when she discovers her latent libido in favor of a to-do list of sexual experiences she hopes will quickly get her up to speed before the fall semester starts. Her more experienced BFFs Wendy (Sarah Steele) and Fiona (Alia Shawkat) are dubious that Brandy can go from bench-warmer status to home base in one short summer, but with the experienced guidance of her semi-skanky sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), who lost her virginity at 14, Brandy sorts out her priorities and identifies a shortlist of candidates to help her get into the game.
She quickly checks off her first few goals with her crushed-out chemistry lab partner Cameron (Johnny Simmons), but finding out that Rusty is also working at the same public pool where she's lifeguarding for the first time over the summer throws Brandy off her stride. Her nonchalant response to the constant hazing from her coworkers and slacker boss Willy (Bill Hader) earns her some respect, however, particularly when she elicits the well-kept secret that could get Willy fired.
With Rusty so tantalizingly nearby almost every day and showing growing interest as Brandy sheds her uptight image as well as her one-piece swimsuit in favor of a bikini, she senses her ultimate goal may not be far off, especially with the rumor spreading that she's writing some sort of teen sex manual. Then Cameron totally bums her out with a squirmingly awkward revelation, forcing Brandy to consider whether there may be some collateral emotional damage associated with her sexual conquests that could derail her grand scheme.
Making a convincingly assured feature debut, TV and Web series writer-director Carey's script nails the raunchy-sweet tone required to bring off this R-rated teen-centered comedy with remarkable charm and relatability, mining a rich vein of girl-centered sexual curiosity and experimentation "loosely inspired" by personal experience.
Both funnier and kinder than other recent attempts to capture the attention of a disparate segment of female moviegoers, the film achieves a cheerfully ambivalent tone more appropriate to carefree youthfulness. Beyond its target audience, the good-natured inclusion of various male characters and perspectives.
Plaza's performance, shaped both by Brandy's naivete and her almost clinical determination to lose her virginity, sets the narrative on a sex-positive journey of discovery, creating ample opportunity for misunderstanding and humor.
Brandy's quest might be fruitless without the support of her family and friends, including her mother (Connie Britton), a straight-talking nurse, and her far more experienced sister, played by Bilson with a winning mixture of sagacity and sexual accomplishment. Shawkat and Steele prove an antic pair of best friends, enthusiastically abetting Brandy's suddenly assertive behavior.
In fact, they're all way more dialed-in than the mostly clueless guys, who respond to Brandy's come-ons with a combination of bewilderment and opportunism, only to be passed over as she checks off another experience on her list. Simmons is all puppy dog eyes and wounded pride as Brandy's smitten classmate and although Porter displays an air of romantic invincibility as the singularly named Rusty Waters, he may just crack if Brandy gets under his skin.
"The To Do List," a CBS Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "pervasive strong crude and sexual content, including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use, and language - all involving teens. Running time: 103 minutes.