At the beginning of “The To Do List,” the camera lingers on 1990s objects as the 2 Live Crew hit “Me So Horny” throbs in the background. Names of the cast and crew pop up on scrunchies, a TI-83 graphing calculator, an Apple computer the size of a Mack truck. All the while, the bass is thumping and a voice is promising: “Me love you long time!”
Maggie Carey, making her directing and screenwriting debut with “The To Do List,” stands behind her title sequence. “Right there,” she said. “It’s like, either you like this movie and you get it, or this is not the movie for you.”
“The To Do List” follows Brandy Klark (played by Aubrey Plaza from “Parks and Recreation”), an overachieving valedictorian who dedicates the summer before freshman year of college to becoming as sexually experienced as possible. She makes a list of every extracurricular activity she never got around to in high school, rolls up her sleeves — or, more accurately, unzips her skort— and gets busy.
Everything about the look of the movie oozes ’90s nostalgia, and there’s no denying the visual cues to that simpler time help make “The To Do List” so funny. But don’t get distracted by the Trapper Keeper trappings of the setting (it’s 1993, “but that means 1988 in Idaho,” Carey said). Hidden inside that Caboodle, next to the landline telephone, over by the “Beverly Hills 90210” poster, whirring in the VCR, is the most progressive movie about female teen sexuality that’s hit theaters in decades.
When films tackle high school hookups, the takeaway seems to be that sex is either The Biggest Deal or No Big Deal. “The To Do List” rejects the premise that those two points of view are mutually exclusive, arguing instead that sex Is What It Is: a big deal when you want it to be, not a big deal when you don’t.
“It’s possible that that experience [of having sex for the first time] wasn’t what [Brandy] thought it would be, but it wasn’t bad,” Carey said. “That was important for me: That it wasn’t what she expected, but she walks away having learned something and it wasn’t negative.”
The teen movie canon is packed with guys just looking to get lucky and get on with it: “American Pie,” “Superbad,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” the groan inducingly titled “The Last American Virgin.” But the go-to teen movie trope for a girl requires that she wants to have sex for the first time for a reason, and sex as an end unto itself is not reason enough. Play by those rules and emerge victorious; break them and be punished accordingly.
There’s Sam, the birthday girl in “Sixteen Candles,” a virgin who is saving herself for her senior crush. Her reward: birthday cake with aforementioned crush, passionate kiss over the titular candles.
There’s the very problematic Bella Swan from “Twilight,” whose idea of premarital relations consists of meaningful eye contact and not much else. Her reward: marriage to her beloved, eternal life, sparkly skin.
There’s Cher from “Clueless,” who rejects high school boys as unworthy. (“They’re like dogs. You have to clean them and feed them and they’re just like these nervous creatures that jump and slobber all over you.”) She tries and fails to lose her virginity to the guy she deems the only suitable suitor in town and gets smacked with a way-harsh insult that turns her point of pride into a source of shame: “You’re a virgin who can’t drive.” Still, at the movie’s end, her reward: She gets the guy, catches the bouquet. As if.
Girls who are cavalier about this double-standard face the consequences: regret (“10 Things I Hate About You”), pregnancy (“Juno”), mockery (“Easy A”), abandonment and untimely death (“The Virgin Suicides”).
“The To Do List” doesn’t smite Brandy for her promiscuous pursuit of happiness. It celebrates her as a pro-choice-T-shirt-wearing, Gloria Steinem-quoting, clever and capable adult who is ultimately empowered, if at times grossed out and embarrassed, by the choices that she makes.
“This movie is a comedy, not a romantic comedy,” Carey said. “And this is a very smart 18-year-old woman. She is not kidding herself that the guy she’s going to lose her virginity to is the guy she wants to marry. . . . So she’s going into that very clearheaded and levelheaded. Even though she’s naïve in a way, she’s also savvy.”’
Carey, like Brandy, grew up in Idaho and graduated from high school in 1993. “I played a ton of sports, I was in every AP class possible,” she said. But when she dug out the diary she’d kept as a teenager, she found she’d barely spilled any ink over her academic and athletic achievements.
“My diary was just all about boys,” she said. “In one entry, I was at a competitive soccer camp, but all I would talk about was the boy two fields over. Which I think is okay! It doesn’t mean, because we were curious about boys or were even boy-crazy, that I wasn’t absolutely a feminist . . . and earnestly a Hilary Rodham Clinton fan.”
Brandy is, too; she’s even wearing a Clinton T-shirt during one especially climactic, personal scene. If that isn’t true fandom, what is?
Carey tapped her real-life resources to put together the movie’s cast. Carey and Plaza met while taking comedy classes at Upright Citizen’s Brigade; Carey had previously cast Plaza as the surly teenage stepdaughter in “The Jeannie Tate Show,” a Web series she directed and co-wrote. She created the part of Brandy with Plaza in mind, even though April, Plaza’s surly character on “Parks and Recreation,” would probably want to punch Brandy in the face. Carey’s husband, Bill Hader of “Saturday Night Live” fame, plays Brandy’s deadbeat boss at the community pool.
Carey also landed two stars of “Friday Night Lights,” one of her favorite shows: Connie Britton as Brandy’s sex-positive mom and Scott Porter as Rusty Waters, the object of Brandy’s affection who seems to have the same shirt allergy that plagues Matthew McConaughey.
Brandy shares some of Carey’s type-A DNA “in terms of [her] character and her point of view as a teen girl,” she said, adding that the film’s coming-of-age adventures “were derivative of things I’d experienced as a teen girl.”
Just one clarification: “The movie is fiction,” Carey said. “I never made a list.”
At area theaters. Rated R for pervasive strong, crude and sexual content including graphic dialogue, drug and alcohol use and language — all involving teens.