A Trial-and-Error Twist on Teen Romance
If you think you know what to expect from a high school rom-com, you might be surprised by watching Sex Appeal. Director Talia Osteen’s teen drama is all about the relationship between love and–you guessed it–sex. But despite its somewhat fresh take on the teen film genre, Sex Appeal has a lot of kinks to work through.
Fresh on the heels of the popular Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before franchises, Sex Appeal wrests attention from “getting the guy” and refocuses its story as one of self-discovery and sexual awakening.
However–in an obvious attempt to draw a complex picture of sex–the film drastically oversimplifies what sex means to each character, portraying the concept as less relatable to the common teen experience and more moralizing to viewers.
The subject of Sex Appeal is Avery (Mika Abdalla), a high school student and future MIT admittee who is good at pretty much everything. But when her long-distance boyfriend Casper wants to have sex, she panics. It seems sex is the one thing she knows nothing about.
Luckily, a STEM contest challenges Avery to design an app to solve a personal problem in her life. She then gets to work on “Sex Appeal”: software meant to guide you through your first sexual experience. Through a series of sexual experiments with her best friend Larson (Jake Short) as well as comical interviews with classmates, Avery determines to crack the code on how to have good sex.
There’s a lot of potential for romantic tension and hilarity in the premise. Unfortunately, Avery’s flat characterization sucks the life out of the story’s progression.
The student genius has a one-track mind. She feels no anticipation to discover things about sex and about her body. There’s no nervous excitement for her first time with her boyfriend. She sets up her project with Larson like a heartless experiment, and it definitely plays out like one.
The fantasy scenes that replace the foreplay between Avery and Larson–likening it to space exploration and synchronized swimming–further distance us from their developing relationship.
If Avery isn’t a relatable character, the supporting cast doesn’t engage viewers much either. The film tries its hand at comedy through Avery’s overbearingly sex-positive moms, and these jokes land with misguided aplomb.
From one mother’s obsession to painting vaginas, to another’s constant appeal for Avery to “name her feelings,” I can’t help but wonder if comedies will ever cease making caricatures of gay parents.
The divorced lesbian couple is just another strike against a film that tries to be progressive and fails miserably. In fact, the few traits that make this feature a refreshing take (the commitment to pleasing both partners during sex, the portrayal of a young woman learning what she likes without judgment) feel utterly stymied by the film’s ultimate message. That is, that sex and love are intertwined.
As Larson puts it, “Love leads to sex, and sex leads to love.” Why the filmmakers push this oversimplified narrative is a mystery. They would have done better to keep with the film’s more poignant theme that healthy relationships, even more so than good sex, take work.
Sex Appeal is a valiant attempt at a sex-positive, progressive high school drama about first love and personal growth–but it isn’t the genre-bending sex comedy anyone was hoping for.
Verdict - 3/10