Saturday, 31 March 2018

IN THEATRES: Blockers

Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) have been best friends since primary school. Now they are all about to graduate and come up with the perfect send-off to their high school experience: a sex pact on prom night.

It's perfect except for the part where Julie's mum Lisa (Leslie Mann) finds out about the pact, tells Kayla's man-mountain-with-feelings dad Mitchell (John Cena) and Sam's human-dumpster-fire dad (Ike Barinholtz).

While the girls party, their parents frantically attempt to catch up to them and foil their plan.


I caught the trailer for this in front of Game Night, and it looked better than the log line. And as it turns out, this movie is more sophisticated than the premise would suggest. From the outside, this sounds ridiculously old-fashioned and sexist, but the movie (directed by Kay Cannon and written by Brian & Jim Kehoe) is laser-focused on undermining the double standards around women and their sexual agency.

The closest recent analogue is Bad Neighbours 2, which used a gender inversion to make points about the privileges of fraternities versus sororities. A similar strategy is at work here, with a group of teen girls who want to have sex and party like adults. We have seen this set-up in multiple variations for decades with young men, but generally speaking, those movies (Porkies, American Pie, Superbad etc) do not deviate from its protagonists' POV, which is generally white and cishet.

While the parents are the focus, Blockers oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis between our heroes and their progeny. The multiple POVs helps the movie to avoid the tunnel vision of similar teen sex comedies,  providing opportunities for more angles on our protagonists' well-intentioned but idiotic quest.


In the end, Blockers is a movie more concerned with the parents learning to grow up without their kids, rather than the kids: Mann's Lisa does not want her daughter to leave Chicago because she is afraid of being alone; Cena's Mitchell is terrified of his daughter doing anything on her own because he feels that its his job to protect her; Barinholtz's Hunter is a divorced dad who - in contrast to his friends - wants his daughter to have a great night, and feels that this is his one last chance to connect with her.

It is rare funny movie that cares about all of its main characters, and makes them all active participants in the story. Even the kids are allowed to be people rather than just plot devices for their parents' inanities. There is even a subplot about Sam's reluctance to come out of the closet, which could have either been an exercise in lascivious bad taste or clunky social commentary, but it ends up being an integral thread to the story.

Another thing I liked about the girls' storyline is that it was not resolved around romance (or even sex) - it ends with an affirmation of their friendship.


While they are all good, the movie belongs to the Blockers themselves.

Leslie Mann can do this in her sleep. That's not a diss - she is just so good at keeping handle on her character's insecurities while still finding humour in the situation. She is great.

I am a big fun of unorthodox personalities finding their way into acting, and John Cena is surprisingly good here. Something is going on with this new batch of wrestlers-turned-actors. John Cena is clearly following the same template as Dave Bautista - he's not going for straight dramatic leads, but finding a niche where his outsized presence works. He's also willing to undermine his masculinity in a way that is really funny. His character is so emotionally exposed that when he tries to put on a macho front it is hilarious. There are a few micro moments where he seems a little wooden, but overall he fit in with Mann and Barinholtz so well it felt like he'd been doing this for years. I am actually looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The real standout for me was Ike Barinholtz. I know him as a supporting player from the Neighbours movies, where he did this...


... but other than that he kind of put me off. Initially, his role as Hunter seems to be cut from the same cloth: a mildly sociopathic wild man who drinks and sleeps around.

Hunter is an archetype we have seen a million times before, but with a greater sense of emotional baggage: his acting-out feels like a response to his own sense of failure. At first, I found his character horribly cliched, but as more is revealed about his character, he become the heart of the movie. There is a sense of desperation to Barinholtz's clowning that makes him more sympathetic than this character type would usually receive - he has belatedly recognised that he has completely missed on his daughter's life and wants to rectify that.

In an interesting turn, it turns out that Hunter has cottoned-on to Sam's secret, and his motive is multi-pronged: partially he wants to block the other parents from ruining their girls' night, but he also wants to make sure that Sam does not do something she does not want to do (like have sex with her clueless prom date Chad).

One of the things this movie makes clear is that the girls all know what they are doing, and manage to sort out their individual predicaments on their own, with no interference from their parents. It also leads to a really sweet scene where Sam comes out to Hunter. While there are a lot of laughs in the movie (the butt-chugging scene et al), this is the high point for me. What's great about it is how it does not go the way you would expect. In any other movie this moment would be purely dramatic, but here it is undercut: Barinholtz manages to simultaneously hold back tears that he has finally connected with Sam, and grins at the realisation that Sam has not told anyone else (including her mum and step-dad).

After Game Night, Blockers is another fine studio comedy with plenty of laughs and a little more on its mind. Hopefully this is a good sign for the rest of the mainstream comedy releases this year.

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