Thursday, June 14, 2018

Earning an Easy A

It’s exciting to think that a contemporary high school student could find relevance in a classic work of literature written centuries ago.  But screenwriters, who are generally overeducated for the requirements of their profession, like to mix it up occasionally by turning to their literary heroes for subject matter. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, that classic story of love and heartbreak, has appeared in all sorts of modern settings. (See Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet, set in Verona Beach, for one of the wildest.)  A more comic Shakespearean tale, The Taming of the Shrew, was turned into a 1999 high school romance, 10 Things I Hate About You. Yes, the writers of the latter eventually stopped trying to impose Shakespearean references onto their story, but it was fun while it lasted. And with Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in the leads, who cared, anyway?

High school movies (the list keeps getting longer all the time) have been popular since the John Hughes days in the 1980s. Maybe that’s because teenagers are much more frequent moviegoers than their elders. And whereas in my era the big life decisions (like whom to fall for and when to first experience sex) came in the college years, high school now seems to be the place for that crucial experimentation. The 1995 high school comedy Clueless, based on Jane Austen’s witty Emma, had much more to do with shopping and matchmaking than with serious hooking up. But in slightly more recent films, the whole idea of teenagers doing the nasty is front and center.

Easy A takes its title and some of its plot from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 classroom staple,  The Scarlet Letter, in which a woman is publicly punished for adultery while her lover’s identity remains hidden. The Hawthorne novel, a shocker in its day, was first filmed by Hollywood back in 1926, when sweet Lillian Gish campaigned to play the leading role of Hester Prynne. In 1995, Roland Joffé attempted a more frank and “modern” version, which was described as “freely adapted” from the original. Its stars were Demi Moore, Gary Oldman, and Robert Duvall, and it won plenty of Razzie awards, including the top prize for “worst remake or sequel.” There’ve been plenty of other attempts too, some of them foreign language versions. But Easy A is, I believe, the first time this story has had a high school setting.

Not that Easy A is about adultery, exactly. Mostly it deals with the power of rumor-mongering and how school kids can’t wait to think the worst of one another. Yes, there’s an off-camera—and highly inappropriate—adulterous encounter that becomes one of the film’s more serious strands. Still, at the center of the action is a virginal but feisty young woman (a mesmerizing Emma Stone) who decides to embrace wholeheartedly the rumor that she’s slept around. Stone’s Olive is a highly original creation, someone both smart and naïve, both good-hearted and self-absorbed. (I suspect she and Saiorse Ronan’s Lady Bird would get along great.) The boys who flock to her are often misfits who don’t want sex so much as a boost to their shaky reputations for machismo. Yes, the film’s view of high school seems right on target.

Easy A is on unsteady ground, aesthetically speaking, because it can’t decide how comedic (or how realistic) it wants to be. Still, I have to put in a plug for Olive’s outrageously outspoken parents, played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci. Both hilariously funny, they also help explain how Olive evolved into the most unusual young woman she’s turning out to be.

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