Monday 1 November 2010

Stone me: "Easy A"

Sometimes it's possible to plot the progress of a star in the making in much the same way Galileo did with comets passing through the night sky. Emma Stone first caught the eye as one of the love interests in 2007's Superbad; red-haired and smoky-voiced, she immediately struck me as an insurable replacement for the then-troubled Lindsay Lohan, even as the film - being too busy with teenage boys' stuff, all vomit and violent pratfalls - scarcely seemed to notice her. She was more prominent among the carnage in last year's Zombieland, in a role that allowed her to kick ass and crack wise, and suggested either the actress or her agent had a keen eye for sharp, commercial genre scripts. Now we have Stone's first above-the-title vehicle, Easy A, which expresses a certain fondness for that turn-of-the-century wave of ultra-literate teen pictures inspired by classic texts, and confirms the actress's inexorable rise, even as it asks her to inhabit a role of one whose charms haven't yet been fully recognised: it's a choice informed by a welcome degree of self-deprecation.

For starters, Stone's heroine labours under the nomenclature Olive - a name rendered wholly unsexy from Anna Karen's very first introduction back in On the Buses. A book-reading wallflower, this Olive blows off an invitation to a friend's party by claiming to be spending the night with her (entirely fictitious) lover, and - this being a small campus - word soon gets around. "That's the beauty of being a young woman in high school," as Olive phrases it, "You can have sex once, and everyone thinks you're a bimbo." She thus inherits a burgeoning reputation as Girl Most Likely to Put Out - coincidentally enough, just as she and her Eng-lit classmates are getting their heads around Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. (And we twig that Olive Penderghast is intended as every bit as unprepossessing a name as Hester Prynne.) Olive puts her assumed sluttiness to use for the benefit of those around her - taking a gay friend for a mock tumble, allowing him to pass for straight - but soon finds it alienates her girlfriends, the school's vocal Christian community, not to mention the basketball-team mascot for whom she's long held a torch.

In other words, after a run of noisy, boysy ensemble pieces, in which any girls present ran the risk of being crowded out, Easy A is Stone centre-stage: she narrates, she gives the shrewdest, sexiest line readings of any screen redhead since Alicia Witt on TV's Cybill (praise this viewer does not offer up lightly); she even gets her own song-and-dance number two-thirds of the way through proceedings. If this isn't a star-making role, then frankly I don't know what is; but it's also thoughtful in its presentation of an intelligent young woman stuck with a problem she can't quite figure out, and unusually empowering as these things go, sympathetically describing a teenager struggling to control (or define) her sexuality while retaining some degree of self-respect in the process.

It helps that Will Gluck's peppy direction and the script (by the pseudonymous-sounding Bert V. Royal) prove awful smart about an awful lot of things, from the potency of cheap music (like it or not, you will have Natasha Bedingfield's "Pocketful of Sunshine" running through your head for days afterward) and dumb jokes ("C'est la vie" "La vie"), to the relative values of old movies ("If you are studying [The Scarlet Letter] on a test, be sure to rent the original, and not the Demi Moore version, in which Hester Prynne adopts a British accent and takes a lot of baths") and the essentiality of safe sex: your average adolescent will emerge knowing at least one thing about chlamydia they didn't know going in, not to mention something about the downsides of Spanish fly. (And, by way of a bonus, a little extra on the homoerotic subtexts of Huckleberry Finn.)

Sure, it coasts into familiar territory towards the end, Royal solving the problems of his plot with the aid of a webcam and some 1980s nostalgia; this latter element may play more favourably to viewers of a certain age, and comes to mitigate against the restrictions of the (harsh-seeming) 15 certificate the feature has been landed with in the UK. By then, though, Easy A has already done much of the hard work in constructing a near-perfect, and in any case very agreeable teen-movie world, one in which it's possible for a girl to have Lisa Kudrow as her guidance counsellor, Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci for wise, funny, accepting parents, Amanda Bynes as a glowering born-again nemesis, Malcolm McDowell as a headmaster, and endless candy-pop goodness soundtracking one's every bold and sassy move.

Easy A is on nationwide release.

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