It’s been almost 20 years since the boys of American Pie made a pact to lose their virginity, declaring: “We will fight for every man out there who isn’t getting laid and should be.” It seemed innocent enough back then, but that male entitlement would never work in the newly awakened sexual climate of 2018. Consider, too, the peeping toms of Porky’s (1981) and rape by deception in Revenge of the Nerds (1984), and it’s clear that decades of teen sex comedies have positioned boys as subjects and girls as the objects of their conquests.
The new movie Blockers, the directorial debut of Pitch Perfect scribe Kay Cannon, sets the record straight. Teen girls do have libidos, and they are not, as the canon suggests, confined to either end of a spectrum bookended by slut and prude. In the R-rated comedy, at once raunchy and sweet, three parents try to intervene after learning—via a secret code involving eggplant emoji—of their daughters’ prom-night pact to lose their virginity. But these girls know exactly what they’re doing. It’s their folks who must reckon with the double standard they’re enforcing.
“I’m constantly asking, How can we flip this trope?” says Cannon, who says she was drawn to the project as both a former teenage girl and the mother of a daughter who will someday be one. And the answer, in this case, was in nearly every decision the director made. Working from a script by Brian and Jim Kehoe—which Cannon says she molded significantly, often as the only woman in a room of a dozen men—the director finds ample ways to present teenagers in a new, often more positive, light. To begin with: here, the girls are in control.
The Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan plays one of the three girls, Kayla, a straight-shooting, confident athlete who’s unashamed and unapologetic about her sexuality. Rather than let her date wonder where the night might lead, she lets him know early on that she’s “fully planning on having sex tonight.” Later in the movie, she asks him if he’d be willing to pleasure her. “I loved how forward she was,” says Viswanathan. “That kind of teenage girl is rarely seen.”
Also rarely seen on film: female friendships that don’t devolve, even just temporarily and for the purposes of narrative tension, into cattiness or jealousy. In one scene, Kayla decorates the room in which her friend Julie (Kathryn Newton) hopes to lose her virginity. She lays rose petals and Red Vines, her friend’s favorite candy, across the bed because she knows how much this night means to her. Sam (Gideon Adlon), who rounds out the trio, turns out to be harboring a secret crush on another girl instead of on her prom date, a boy. Without spoiling her story, suffice it to say that she’s in good hands when she chooses to share her truth.
But it’s not just the girls who get to shed decades’ worth of baggage here. The boys, for once, aren’t salivating horndogs but consent-minded gentlemen. They listen to what their dates want and respect their boundaries. Sometimes they seem less certain than the girls do about having sex in the first place. They offer a new model of behavior for boys who might be watching. “We’ve seen so many scenes where it’s just like, Let me trick this girl into having sex with me,” says Viswanathan. “We can’t have that anymore.”
One of the boys, Chad (Jimmy Bellinger) is a proud musical theater nerd of the variety that, in another teen movie, would be getting shoved into lockers. Instead, the other guys in the limo compliment him unironically on his singing abilities. “There are so many points where, if this movie was being made ten years ago, maybe there would be a gay joke there or a slut joke there,” says Viswanathan, who credits Cannon with injecting that sense of respect and goodness into the story. “Audiences are evolved now—you can’t just rely on a dick joke.”
Teenagers are evolved these days, too. And Cannon was determined that Blockers reflect their enlightened attitudes about sex and sexuality. She called up her teenage nieces for research, and frequently deferred to the three young women on set with her every day. She came to the conclusion that teens today, compared to the ones who came of age during the eras of Porky’s or American Pie, are talking about sex more. They’re more open and comfortable with sexual exploration as a normal part of adolescence. “We have all these studies that they’re waiting longer [to have sex]. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. It’s probably no different than what it’s been in the past, it’s just they’re talking about it more.”
There’s a flip side to all of this, though. “You want young women to be able to make these decisions and not be shamed and be no different than the boys. And then you’re like, Is it okay that they’re having sex when they’re 13, with no emotion? I don’t know, you just worry,” she says.
Which is, in some ways, what Blockers is all about: loving parents who worry about whether their children are equipped to make healthy choices as they catapult full speed ahead into adulthood. Along the way, they’re forced to reckon with the extent to which that worry is wrongly influenced by their children’s gender. (Hint: it is.) But if this movie can inspire intergenerational dialogue, Cannon will be satisfied. Cannon herself grew up in a Catholic family that preached abstinence or bust. Sexuality wasn’t on the menu of topics up for discussion. “I would have liked to have had those conversations,” she says now. “I hope it can get people laughing,” she says of the movie, “then get parents talking with their kids.”
Although it was conceived before the #MeToo movement, Blockers feels tailor-made for this moment, when conversations about consent and empowerment and the gray areas we’ve long been afraid to discuss as a society are becoming increasingly normalized. Cannon says she’s heartened by young people’s evolving attitudes: “There seems to be no more slut-shaming. Girls are finding empowerment in making their own decisions.” Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.