Exceeding the low expectations that accompany R-rated teen comedies, “The To Do List” is idiosyncratic enough to hold our attention without entirely commanding our admiration.
Writer/director Maggie Carey’s film turns the “American Pie” recipe into an upside-down cake, making its klutzy but endearing young heroine the aggressor. The summer before leaving for college, valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) of Boise, Idaho, is determined to experience all the sextracurricular activities she missed in high school. Organized to a fault, she catalogs a meticulous checklist of unfamiliar skills she intends to master. Most teen protagonists are male, horny and hapless. Brandy, barely on speaking terms with her hormones, is stubborn, overachieving, a tad obnoxious and admirably persistent.
It’s cheap and silly, but thanks to Plaza’s sly performance, you laugh regardless. Our Type A heroine is a living, breathing character, a far cry from the clichéd gold-hearted bimbos and cute blonde girlfriends of mainstream teen flicks. She sees life’s most rapturous mystery as a series of tasks, errands and chores (is that why so many sex acts end with the suffix “job”?).
Plaza evokes the ripples of disquiet flowing beneath the surface of an obsessively structured life. Her summer job as a lifeguard at the dismal local pool gives her a chance to flaunt her stuff in front of the local boys. The feigned sass in her strut is endearing and ludicrous. She’s a “Breakfast Club” amalgam of geek, princess, criminal, basket case and jock.
The film is an early-’90s period piece, so studious Brandy must dig information out of her pretty, condescending older sister (Rachel Bilson) and sassy best friends (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele), rather than the Internet. Nostalgia reference points abound, with skorts, Wonderbras, Trapper Keeper notebooks, Hypercolor T-shirts and mall-worthy retro pop song cues. The Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” fits the triangular plot that positions Plaza between a dough-headed hunk played by Scott Porter and smart, sincere Johnny Simmons.
While this is a story by, for and about girls, it’s surprisingly light on romance. Brandy is not hoping to find her one true soul mate. She’s curious, not flirtatious. She’s just trying to lose her V-card, and about a dozen other cards, before freshman orientation. The film’s attitude is staunchly non-treacly, with an admirable lack of hand-wringing about Brandy’s agenda. She’s out to explore one of life’s great pleasures without pretending it’s a bigger deal than that. As she observes, regrets are something you have in your 30s, not your teens.
The film is moored between cheerful absurdity and broad caricature, with a sturdy supporting cast. The younger characters are coarse and crafty (there are a couple of preteen pool rats who are like summertime refugees from “A Christmas Story”), the adults are pompous and needy, and Carey is fond of both. Andy Samberg has a nice turn as a vain grunge musician. Fellow “SNL” veteran Bill Hader (filmmaker Carey’s husband) plays the aging also-ran who manages the community pool. Connie Britton and Clark Gregg score solid, character-based laughs as Brandy’s easygoing mom and straitlaced dad. They have a sweet, loose rapport and a giggly-raunchy scene in the last reel that shows their marriage isn’t quite as stagnant as it appears. “The To Do List” is minor-league, but it gets to second base.