Meet Avery (Mika Abdalla). She’s top of her class, headed to MIT in the fall and gearing up to dominate STEMcon, AKA her very own version of prom. But Avery has a big problem, one that, in her eyes, threatens to completely overshadow her impressive academic accolades. Her long-distance boyfriend, hunky science-guy Casper (Mason Versaw), wants to take their relationship to the next level. The issue? Avery has no idea what goes where.
Herein lies the chief tension of Sex Appeal. Every teen sex comedy’s got one: The motley crew of the American Pie movies put themselves through the wringer in an attempt to contain their raging hormones, the protagonists of Superbad embark on an urgent mission to lose their respective virginities before college and Easy A’s Olive is desperate to sustain her reputation as the most promiscuous girl at her California high school. Sex Appeal follows suit. The film dutifully gives this beloved subgenre a fresh face by drawing attention to its formula and the nitty-gritty minutiae of preparing to lose your virginity. In order to master the art of sex, Avery sets out to create an app that is guaranteed to help those wanting for sex to easily and skillfully hack the act. She recruits her childhood best friend Larson (Jake Short) for help, and the two embark in a flurry of perfectly awkward sexual experiments.
A great deal of Sex Appeal’s appeal lies in its high-concept premise. A teenager who approaches losing her virginity like coding Java enhances the scientific makeup of a film that already has many elements of a successful comedy: A racy goal, huge margin for comical errors and mishaps, and a core that bubbles with romantic potential. But by the third act, Sex Appeal is so uncomfortably contorted in an effort to neatly package itself into a pre-established framework that it squanders that potential.
A lot of this can be boiled down to one simple variable: Avery. Instead of portraying Avery as a normal teen who is nervous about her first sexual exploit (a very normal affliction), director Talia Osteen and screenwriter Tate Hanyok reduce her to a caricature—a decision born most likely from the knowledge that a character with cartoonishly clear wants, goals and personality traits will make the film’s message more easily decipherable. More than anything, Sex Appeal is determined not to let us forget that Avery is smart. Very, very, very smart. She’s—dare I say—not like other girls. And yet, when it comes to her social life, Avery is probably the most clueless person at her high school. Part of the film’s humor is attributed to Avery’s profound lack of understanding surrounding the male or female body, which is confusing when considering her scientific savvy, and borderline preposterous given the constant sex-positivity that her three moms have spewed at her since she was a tot. At one point, Danica McCollum (Paris Jackson) teaches Avery how to masturbate, and the latter’s’ utter incredulity makes me doubt that she has ever even cracked open a science textbook, let alone is on the path to becoming one of the world’s leading STEM scholars.
Avery’s sexual blindspot quickly trickles into her social life. When she recruits Larson for her experiment, she is troublingly unaware of how not into it he is. Larson has had feelings for Avery since they were kids, feelings which she promptly shut down. Now, he’s trying to move on with his life and court a cute Avery lookalike (Daniela Nieves). But it’s not that Avery doesn’t care about her friend’s feelings, she seems to be completely unaware of them. (When, in the third act, he tells her about them for the fourteenth time, she still seems genuinely perplexed.) Not only are Avery’s social shortcomings at odds with her scientific prowess, but it also doesn’t make sense that she would be so brazen about something that she’s so shy about. She breaks into Larson’s class and announces that she needs a sex partner, for example, and unabashedly goes up to a cheerleader she has never spoken to and bombards her with sex questions on the mere basis that since she is a cheerleader, she should know.
It’s yet another moment of disconnect, where logic is sacrificed for an attempt at humor, and one disconnected from the filmmaking—everything feels out of line with Avery’s bluntness. Instead of ever actually showing sex, Osteen skirts around the issue by offering up campy, G-rated, fantastical sex-metaphors. Sex Appeal’s contradictory nature never truly lets up. When, at the end of the film, the romantic kettle finally boils over, it feels as though Osteen is simply doing her due diligence and following the sex-comedy formula. Not only that, but the final “the secret to good sex is actually love” message feels contrived and antithetical to the film’s general, sex-positive, empowering, woman-in-STEM messaging.
Despite this, Sex Appeal’s ending also cultivates some of its strongest moments. It’s not exactly groundbreaking to have the protagonist of a sex comedy make some serious errors in judgment, nor is this the first time we’ve seen a not-like-the-other-girls protagonist who mocks prom and champions math over make-up. What’s more rare, though, is to see those character types be critiqued for the harm that they might cause, and, refreshingly, Avery is: By Larson and, most importantly, by herself. So when the go-get-the-guy moment inevitably rolls around, delivered hilariously by Rebecca Henderson (playing one of Avery’s moms and a general highlight of the film), it’s less about actually getting the guy, and more about Avery finally managing to find herself. If only the film wasn’t so intent on cramming itself into a small corner of the sex-comedy subgenre, stripping itself of nuance and logic in the process.
Director: Talia Osteen
Writers: Tate Hanyok
Stars: Mika Abdalla, Mason Versaw, Jake Short, Paris Jackson
Release Date: January 14, 2021 (Hulu)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.