While the genre of teen sex comedies has been around since the 1980s, making the characters in those films actually respect themselves and the objects of their
lust affection is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s no small coincidence that some of the recent successes in that regard, including Blockers, Booksmart, and Yes, God, Yes, are ones where women take the lead both on-screen and off.
While not as polished as those films, the new Hulu film Sex Appeal has much the same goal. Its lead is high school senior Avery Henson-White (Mika Abdalla), who brings a scientific and perfectionist mind to everything in her life, even sex. With an almost singular focus on academics and getting into M.I.T., Avery has no time for relationships, and she wears her status as a virgin not so much as a badge of honor, but with blasé indifference.
But when Stemcon, an academic competition for which she is the reigning champion, calls for contestants to create an app that solves a problem in their personal lives, the best she can come up with is one that would make having sex for the first time less awkward. She enlists longtime friend Larson (Jake Short) to help her with “experiments” so that she has firsthand knowledge of things that she has never experienced.
Directed by Talia Osteen and written by Tate Hanyok, the film walks a fine line in terms of how explicit it gets. When it comes to dialogue, the sky is the limit, with Avery and her fellow students unafraid to talk openly about everything they know – or don’t know – about sex. To say that Avery is repressed would be a misstatement. She has no problem talking about sex; the problem is that she has no sense of the appropriate time or place to bring it up, much to the chagrin of Larson, who has a crush on another student.
But the filmmakers draw the line at actually showing anything graphic. Any moments between Avery and Larson that go beyond kissing are represented by fantasy sequences that explain every movement without showing it, making the scenes both funnier and somehow more vivid in the process. The closest the film comes to nudity is showing Avery in her bra and a funny scene where her head blocks out an adult film on a TV behind her, which seems appropriate since the film is dealing with teenagers.
In spite of the film’s strengths, Osteen and Hanyok struggle a bit with their characterization. The film remains heightened throughout, with few characters acting like real-life people. There’s a difference between a scene being funny because of something organic that happens, and filmmakers trying to force the humor with characters acting like caricatures. This film never crosses the line between broad comedy and relatable comedy.
Abdalla, who grew up in Plano and has a growing filmography, inhabits the role well. She has the charm and intelligence the role requires without coming across as false. Short has the personality that fits his part, but he doesn’t elevate it at all. Fortune Feimster and Margaret Cho play Avery’s two mothers, but the progressive pairing doesn’t add much to the film as a whole. The best supporting character is one played by Paris Jackson (yes, Michael’s daughter), who comes off as extremely confident and charismatic.
Sex Appeal is the latest film to honor the female perspective when it comes to sexuality, although it’s ultimately merely a pleasant watch instead of one that inspires repeat viewings. With its nice balance in addressing teenage sex issues, it should be welcomed by its target audience.
Sex Appeal debuts on Hulu on January 14.