In Easy A, a new high school comedy, Emma Stone stars as Olive, a sharp-witted, kind-hearted 17-year-old who cultivates a reputation as the school slut even though she’s a virgin. In a bizarre twist on a girl protecting her honour, she takes to wearing satin bustiers emblazoned with a red “A”—inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which, conveniently, she’s studying in school. It all starts with a fib to her best friend about a wild weekend tryst that never happened. Then, as an act of charity, she fakes drunken sex with a gay friend—which involves a charade of torrid screaming behind a bedroom door at a party—to immunize him against homophobia. “I always thought pretending to lose my virginity would be a little more special,” she sighs. But as Olive is branded a tramp, she turns the stigma into a mark of empowerment, waging a one-woman culture war against the school’s Cross Your Heart Club of Christian prudes. “If they want me to be a dirty skank, fine!” she says. “I’ll be the dirtiest skank they’ve ever seen.”
There was a time when high school morality was simpler, at least in the movies. Bad girls were bad, good girls were good, and it wasn’t that hard to tell them apart. Watch out for the femme fatale with big hair and heavy lip gloss who could steal your boyfriend and ruin your life. But Easy A is one of several new comedies premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 9-19) that trot out a bold new prototype: the honourable slut.
She takes various forms. In Daydream Nation, a first feature from Canadian director Mike Goldbach, Caroline (Kat Dennings) is a bored rebel in a small town who brazenly seduces her English teacher, breaking the ice with an essay that proclaims Monica Lewinsky as a role model.
Yet this fille fatale emerges from the mess as the good girl, while the teacher comes off as pathetic—a no-talent novelist who makes a deluded attempt to turn her into his muse. In Dirty Girl, the high school heroine is first seen in a car that’s bouncing up and down in the parking lot as she breaks in her latest conquest. She finds a soulmate in an overweight gay kid, and redemption in running off to California with him. “Audiences have an ingrained misogyny,” says Dirty Girl director Abe Sylvia. “If I was going to have this sexually active, foul-mouthed, hot girl, I wanted to make sure audiences would still like her.”
Easy A, Daydream Nation and Dirty Girl are all feminist fables by young male directors. “It’s a new kind of feminist filmmaking,” says TIFF programmer Jane Schoettle. “What these films have in common is the outrageous social pressure that’s brought to bear on young women and their reputations. They’re forced into a role not of their own choosing, but then they run with it and make it their own.”
Of the three movies, Easy A adheres most closely to the template of a studio teen comedy in the John Hughes tradition. But the script transcends the genre. Juxtaposing literary conceits with a teen culture of compulsive texting, it’s wired with a fierce subversive streak—and more nuance than the formula usually allows. It’s also a star-making vehicle for Emma Stone, who bears a passing resemblance to Lindsay Lohan (another freckled, green-eyed redhead with an impudent flair), but leaves Lohan in the dust with an intelligence that’s palpable onscreen. Her character is believably more mature than the adults around her, from her smarmy guidance counsellor (Lisa Kudrow) to her daft but adorable ex-hippie parents (Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson)—who ply her with too much information about their own reckless youth.
Parents may be taken aback by Hollywood’s Bad Girl 2.0, who’s turned a come-hither look into a weapon of class destruction. But what they may find scarier is recognizing themselves in the boomer parent-buddies who have no clue what to do with her.