It’s easy to like a character, but it isn’t often you come across one that you would want to actually be friends with, or maybe even wish you could be like. For me, such a character is Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone), a high-school student from Ojai, California. True, she may only be a fictional character, but she’s also the embodiment of personality – smart, witty, and affable, yet not so perfect or above it all that she fails to be human. Despite these magnetic qualities, she isn’t noticed much by her peers, and she’s all but upstaged by her best friend (Aly Michalka), who makes it a point to believe only what she wants to believe instead of actually listening to the truth. Things drastically change for Olive when she gains an infamous reputation as the school floozy, something she didn’t start but certainly chose to perpetuate.
Her story is told in Easy A, which is not only one of the funniest teen comedies of recent memory, but is also one of the most intelligent. Rather than go for obvious lowbrow sex and booze toilet humor, director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal show the temerity to engage the audience with clever dialogue, strong characters, and a plot we can actually care about. It doesn’t play down to the audience. If we laugh, it’s not because of a vulgar throwaway gag but because of genuinely funny scenarios, many of which are relatable to varying degrees. Perhaps the film is founded on an extraordinary premise, but in my mind, it’s a perfectly plausible premise, and the fact that the filmmakers could keep the story grounded while making it entertaining is quite an amazing achievement.
Olive’s infamy begins when she lies about having lost her virginity over the weekend to a college student she made up. The lie is overheard by Marianne (Amanda Bynes), a judgmental and pious Little Miss Christian, who proceeds to tell everyone she knows about Olive’s indiscretion. Rumors quickly spread. Other students begin to take notice of her, and although she never asked for her newfound reputation, she finds she’s appreciating the attention. She’s then approached by her gay friend, Brandon (Dan Byrd), who’s so tired of being harassed by homophobic bullies that he begs her to pretend to have sex with him. Knowing that no one would believe her if she simply told people about it, Olive drags Brandon to a classmate’s party, where they lock themselves in a bedroom and make all the necessary noises. Everyone is fooled.
This includes Marianne and her circle of Christian friends, one of whom boldly suggests that Olive follow the lead of Hester Prynne in The Scarlett Letter and mark herself. Not content with doing things half-heartedly, Olive arrives at school the next day wearing a bustier with a red A affixed to the right breast. In due time, she’s approached by other boys who want Olive to do for them what she did for Brandon; she agrees to help them all, although she’s well aware that the situation is getting out of hand. It’s bad enough that they’re using her to inflate their egos. Why must they also compensate her with gift certificates and coupons to affordable stores like The Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond?
The ads have prepared us to view Olive as a cliché – a wisecracking teen who never shows her emotions and flaunts her superior intellect in the form of biting sarcasm and dry wit. But we end up seeing nothing of the sort. Olive is a young woman of considerable depth, jokey on the outside but within harboring needs, hopes, and deep insecurities. They emerge during scenes with the school mascot, Woodchuck Todd (Penn Badgley), the one guy who has known Olive most of her life and sees the person behind the reputation. Through him, she comes to believe that regaining her self-respect depends on tracking down each of the boys she helped and coercing them into telling the truth. This proves far more difficult than she expected. It’s just as well; the root of “self-respect” is “self,” which is to say no one other than her can turn the situation around.
Other characters, such as Olive’s loveably liberal parents (Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci) and her perpetually flustered school principal (Malcolm McDowell), add color to the story, even if they are a bit less three-dimensional and serve mostly as comedy relief. The English teacher, Mr. Griffith (Thomas Hayden Church), is not only as witty and charming as Olive but is also remarkably perceptive; the same cannot be said about Mr. Griffith’s estranged wife (Lisa Kudrow), which is ironic since she’s the school’s guidance counselor. I don’t want to reveal too much about this couple. Let it suffice to say that Olive’s actions have consequences that extend beyond the limits of the student body.
The film is told as a retrospective, Olive opening the film with a webcam confessional that continuously weaves in and out of the story proper. This is far from an original narrative technique, but Stone’s performance and Royal’s dialogue elevates it to new heights. Right at the start, we’re drawn to this character, and we want to stay near her even after the story has come to an end. Not too many roles have this kind of power. Not too many teen comedies are this well written. Easy A is a sweet, sassy, ingenious little movie, one that I hope will not be forgotten ten years from now.