A while back, Toni Morrison said, “All good art is political.” I think that’s about right, yet I’d take it a step further and say that all art is political — full stop. Does that mean that every movie you see and every book you read has an overt political agenda? No. What I would say is that to quote an interesting article from the American Psychological Association, “Politics is personal.”*
“But why do movies have to be political? Why do they have to be so woke” I see people whining. These folks conveniently forget that movies have always been political, particularly when it comes to our popular culture. Ghostbusters is a classic horror-comedy that’s endlessly watchable. It’s also a product of the 1980s** in which a plucky group of small business owners is harassed by the Federal government. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the funniest and most action-packed entries in the MCU. It also has very specific things to say about colonialism and the stories nations tell themselves. And do we really need to get into how Men in Black is an allegory about immigration, documented and otherwise?
Along with representing certain values, art always has a point of view, one that’s under no obligation to be balanced. A film doesn’t need to feel like a stuffy PBS documentary in the interests of fairness. Fairness has no place in art. Conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza has made four films, all of which are very bad. Before you get ready to dox me, understand that I’m not dragging D’Souza because I disagree with his politics. The problem is that he’s made four films that are thuddingly obvious and feature limited technical skill.***
To my mind, the best films about politics are the ones that make their points with wit. Citizen Ruth is a viciously funny satire about the craven opportunists on both sides of the abortion debate. The Last Supper follows a group of sneering liberals who plot to murder a string of conservatives. Now, we have Plan B, a teen comedy that cleverly rides the line between raunch and heart, and has something to say about how Americans deal with birth control.
Sunny (Kuhoo Verma) and Lupe (Victoria Moroles) aren’t too far from graduating high school in their suburban South Dakota town. They’re in that time of life we’ve all experienced. The first fumbling steps away from childhood. The first decisions to craft their own identities. Oh yeah, and the first hasty and poorly thought out sexual encounter.
The two of them have a nigh-unbreakable bond, even though they couldn’t be more different. Lupe’s single dad (Jacob Vargas) is a pastor, and he expects piety from his little girl. Lupe’s not into it, and her vaping, disinterest in school and punk rock aesthetic bears that out. On the other hand, Sunny’s mom Rosie (Jolly Abraham) is a successful real estate agent who expects perfection from her good girl. Sunny feels constrained, and the crush she has on pleasantly nerdy jock Hunter (Michael Provost) doesn’t help.
And then, an opportunity arises! When Rosie leaves town for a convention, Sunny and Lupe throw a house party. The booze-fueled shenanigans will be a great opportunity for Sunny to seduce Hunter. I’m sure you can see a number of flaws in their brilliant plan, the largest being the extremely regrettable and extremely brief sex that Sunny has with hyper-religious Kyle (Mason Cook). Sorry, I meant second-largest flaw. The largest flaw would be the problem with the condom.
It should be an easy solution, right? All they need to do is go to the local pharmacy, get a Plan B pill, and lesson learned. The pharmacist (Jay Chandrasekhar) complicates things when he refuses to sell it to them under the state’s conscience clause. Planned Parenthood could help out, but they’re a three-hour drive in Rapid City. From there, Sunny and Lupe embark on a wild road trip with more than a few speed bumps along the way.
Back in the day, the teen comedy genre was not known for thoughtfulness. Luckily that’s changed for the better, and director Natalie Morales knows that intelligence and sensitivity can co-exist comfortably alongside a good dick joke. For the most part, she balances the tone nicely between hilarious filth and genuine emotion. Once in a while, the pacing goes off-track with what feels like narrative cul-de-sacs. I wasn’t much bothered, since Morales directs with energy and infectious charm.
In screenwriting, profanity is a spice, and good writers know when to season their dish liberally and when to add just a pinch. Writers Prathiksha Srinivasan and Joshua Levy never fall into the trap of relying on f-bombs in lieu of actual wit. Their characters are both foulmouthed and motormouthed, able to sling quips with the best of them. Their focus on character is just as strong, and everyone from the two main characters to the unsettling clerk at a convenience store clerk feels real, even if they are goofy as hell. Srinivasan and Levy also never get preachy. They know that a snide joke about the conscience clause is far more powerful than an impassioned monologue.
A buddy comedy like this is totally dependent on the right chemistry. You need two leads who are funny, but not the same kind of funny, and likable, but in different ways. Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles have chemistry that’s easy, lively, and feels totally natural.**** Despite being a couple of women in their mid-twenties, they capture the essence of smart teenagers. You can understand their thought processes and reasoning, and you can also understand when they do something that’s utterly dumb as toast. I should mention that Edi Patterson as the bananas convenience store jockey Doris nearly steals the entire movie. Her goofy energy and non-sequiturs about an alarming doll museum are worth the price of admission alone.
A reasonable argument can be made that teen pregnancy rates can be reduced more efficiently through greater access to birth control, and that the conscience clause is nothing more than a way for religious scolds to impose their backward worldviews on total strangers. Good filmmakers know that the best way to get a message across is by avoiding a lecture and providing entertainment. Plan B has something worthwhile to say, and says it with humor and heart.
*You can read the article here.
**1980s conservatism reflected the sunny optimism of Reagan, whereas current conservatism reflects the nativist fear of Trump. The nature of political parties is to change. Keep that little tidbit in mind next time someone mentions that Democrats are the real racists because they founded the Ku Klux Klan.
***The Contender is a wildly partisan political drama. Along with making its particular case, it never forgets that it has an obligation to be entertaining, witty, and skillfully made.
****I always wonder about how actors really feel about one another in buddy comedies. For example, in The Last Boy Scout, Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans apparently despised each other.