13 April 2018

First Impressions: Blockers

As we examine the theater-going crisis in this country right now, where interest has pooled to a few Disney-centric blockbusters and the prospects of just about any mid-range mainstream film is riskier than ever, the reasons why people identify with and flock to any particular film are ever more obscure. As the other great mass media, television continues to diversify and splinter, the distribution and projection costs of movies makes it difficult to be attractive to the most possible viewers.

No wrestling fan will watch this movie
I say all this because Blockers (2018) joins a slew of random-ass movies I've seen in theaters. I think of course back to The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017) last year. I did not even know that Blockers existed before my credit card was hacked and therefore my Netflix account was temporarily rescinded, so I signed up for a free month of Hulu. That shit played a Blockers commercial every single break for every single show. And Hulu has a lot of commercials.

This looked like a really dumb movie. A forgettable comedy that I had no interest in at all. I moved on with my life. A friend of mine wanted to see it, though, and as I suggested, there were some hints that this movie could elevate itself beyond its reductive surface-level problematic elements. So from this slim impulse they got another ticket. On a Monday night. Go figure. All of the marketing elements this movie put forth measured up to absolutely nothing in getting me in the seat - in fact, it was a deterrent. We're in a weird world these days.

To get to the heart of the actual merits of this film, Blockers was way way funnier than it deserved to be. It was even a pretty good film structurally, although it tended to lose track of which group of people it wanted to be its protagonists at various points. When a film just feels good, though, and delivers the laughs, that's easy to ignore. I should explain what the hell is actually going on here. And SPOILERS forever, which is maybe significant for this film, but the plot is ultimately inconsequential to the jokes and character moments.

The film follows three daughters of three parents who all grew pretty close when the daughters were little, and although that trio has stayed BFF, the parents have drifted apart. Prom is coming up and the daughters start thinking about sexy times. The parents find out, freak out, and try to cock block them. Not all, of course, Ike Barinholtz wants to celebrate his daughter's budding homosexuality, which she is grappling with herself.

Everyone in this movie has their own thing or their own goal, gay Samantha is one of six. There's some really great focus on these High School seniors figuring out what's important to them, developing as individuals, transitioning to adults, and the balance of parental supervision. These are helicopter parents, folks - people who have raised their daughters wholly in the new millennium. The parents learn to let go, learn to find ways to re-connect, and actually learn to trust themselves and their own parenting, along with their daughters to make good choices.

All the actors hit their respective notes really well. Gideon Adlon, daughter of Pamela Adlon, plays the lesbian nerd, whose references to Smaug and Galadriel were on point (even if her girl crush's cape was definitely not Galadriel-esque). She's fairly closeted, scared of what her friends and family may think, so she tries to force herself into a heterosexual relationship, even just to try and see what it's like. It doesn't work out so she hooks up with a hot Asian girl. It's a kind of matter-of-fact homosexuality that came across as real, nuanced, and developed. This is from a movie that features John Cena anally ingesting IPAs.

Ike Barinholtz is her father who is kind of a wacky divorced dad piece of shit, but who also has the most trust and understanding of any of the parents. The opposite end of that spectrum is Leslie Mann, the single mom who doesn't want her daughter, played by Kathryn Newton, to make the same shitty mistakes that she did. A lesser movie would leave it at that, but Blockers progresses that further - questioning Mann's choices as legitimate mistakes, acknowledging that her daughter is making more independent decisions than just following horniness, and is part of a relationship where both partners are nervous about sex rather than just trouble-making teens. The weirdest part is that on the surface, Newton is clearly the hottest of their friends, but still totally best friends with this nerd (even though Adlon is probably secretly the hottest). They actually all represent really different friend groups, which further cements the sex bond they want to have.

I ought to talk about her bf, who somehow has the most open and trusting relationship with his parents, played by the sexually experimentative Gary Cole and Gina Gershon, perhaps a little too open and free. It presents a contrast to more common tropes of clueless parents.

Finally we have John Cena and his daughter, played by Geraldine Viswanathan. I was kind of surprised that this is actually the largest comedic role Cena has ever had. He had bit pieces in Trainwreck (2015) and Sisters (2015) and you could include the Daddy's Home movies. I totally forgot about The Marine (2006), 12 Rounds (2009), and The Wall (2017). It is amazing that such a forgettable action star could be such a natural comic gift. He's not front and center of this film, but the majority of jokes are at his expense, which is perfect. It's clear that he's remarkably comfortable laughing at himself and he exudes extreme confidence on screen.

MORE amazing than that is that they found Viswanathan who matches him. I'm not sure the last time I saw such a determined, strong, independent teenager on screen before. She commands every scene she's in while maintaining a doofy pluckiness that's sublime to witness. I hope she's in for a long healthy comedic career.

Part of this is how the teenage boys are portrayed. They're mostly idiots who don't know what they're doing, which seems to match well with the confident, sexually adventurous women. They all offer proper consent and largely roll with whatever the girls want to do, including at times, declining sexual intercourse. To some extent this may have been irresponsible in not addressing sexual assault or date rape, but that also seems really out of place for the tone of this movie. To be honest with the amount of nerdy idiot friends I had and was in High School I can't say I'd have acted much differently. Part of the core arc of this film is these parents learning that they have raised their daughters to have enough self-esteem to not hang out with or approach the sleezeballs of their grade for intercourse. They're hooking up with people they know will respect them. While the parents freak out at their daughters' precious innocence, the daughters themselves are totally in charge of each of their own situations.

That's an amazing achievement for what should have ostensibly been a brainless teenage sex comedy. There are some ham-fisted moments where this ideology is explicitly laid out, which was probably necessary based on the normal audience attracted to this kind of teen sex movie, but largely it twists its high concept brilliantly.

It's also really funny. That's important. Like I said, there are moments where the film doesn't know who to focus on, and we lose track of the daughters for a while while the idiot parents get into wacky hijincks, but it largely works. Blockers may be in the running for funniest film of the year, except I JUST watched Death of Stalin, so it's got its work cut out for it.

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