The tame, backwards Sex Appeal has very little appeal indeed.
New Hulu original Sex Appeal is tailor-made to be watched at sleepovers by undiscerning pretween girls looking for something just a tad naughtier than the umpteenth viewing of Mean Girls would afford. To this end, director Talia Osteen and writer Tate Hanyok work overtime to inject raunch into a story that desperately tries to be of-the-moment, but which instead comes across as distinctly old-fashioned in its hopelessly muddled messaging. In what basically amounts to a tech-centric remake of 2013’s Aubrey Plaza-starrer The To-Do List, straight-A high school senior Avery (Mika Abdalla) takes it upon herself to create an app that will answer the question on every teenager’s mind: what is the secret to good sex? Thorough online research and various interviews with fellow students will allow the chaste Avery to write a program that will win her the top prize at this year’s Stem-Con, where various young type-As vie for educational supremacy. All of this is spurred by Avery’s long-distance boyfriend and fellow Stem-Con competitor Casper (Mason Versaw), a six-pack sporting geek who wants to take their relationship to the next level. Suddenly filled with newfound desires she is unable to understand, Avery is forced out of her comfort zone for the first time in her life, leading to copious amounts of hands-on research with best friend Larson (Jake Short), the results of which are as predictable as to be expected.
Sex Appeal is matter-of-fact in its handling of sex, its various teen characters openly discussing their various experiences, urges, and shortcomings, but does so in a way that recalls the juvenile antics of Good Boys, where anything resembling realism is sacrificed at the alter of a cheap dick joke. Avery is especially perplexing, given that her behavior bears no continuity from scene to scene; her approach to sex might be scientific, which fits considering her supposed superior intellect, but the way her character is drawn in relation to fellow students is far more scatterbrained and less consistent. She continuously confronts Larson in the school halls with sex-related questions and demands that would be indelicate even at a frat party, yet seems oblivious to these repeated inflicted discomforts. At one point, Avery lifts her shirt for him in the sightline of half-dozen other students, and shows no understanding of their shocked reactions, apparently believing that reenacting a scene from 10 Things I Hate About You is entirely normal behavior. Based on how the character of Avery is sketched, there’s an argument to be made that she might be an individual with ASD, which would be a welcome bit of inclusiveness and interesting wrinkle in what’s typically a heteronormative and reductive subgenre. But the film proceeds to just as often contradict this reading when convenient to the plot, which means Hanyok’s script is simply lazy — arguably to the point of offensiveness — when it comes to characterization. That particular failing is all the more notable because Sex Appeal is the type of movie that desperately tries to be woke, giving Avery not one, not two, but three mothers — this when it’s not merely spouting technobabble to prove its youth appeal. It’s strange, then, that Avery’s sexual fantasies twice devolve into a Busby Berkeley-style, synchronized swimming “dance” number, because few things are likely to be closer to the collective Gen-Z consciousness than that.
Part of this is obviously a byproduct of the fact that, as much as these characters can’t stop talking about sex, the film refuses to translate its discourse into any kind of physicality on screen: a hand job gives way to a prolonged visual metaphor where Avery launches a toy rocket, while cunnilingus is rendered as Larson walking through a long, wavy, neon-pink tunnel, banging on various walls while wearing a miner’s helmet. It’s all reflective of the film’s false veneer of sex-positivity — there’s certainly a line to toe when it comes to representations of teen sexuality on screen, but this kind of tame “explicitness” betrays the film’s rhetoric — a bad look made worse in a late-movie montage where various participants in Avery’s study discuss how the horizontal mambo only means something if you are truly in love with the other person, a perspective so conservative that even Pat Robertson would call bullshit. That the film doesn’t outright go pro-abstinence in its final moments is the only bit of subtlety to be found in its seemingly endless 90-minute runtime. All talk and no action, it’s a film best pitched toward a crowd that thinks Booksmart is both shocking and too esoteric. Sex can indeed be fun, kids, no matter what movies like this want you to believe. Thanks for the hectoring, Sex Appeal.
You can currently stream Talia Osteen’s Sex Appeal on Hulu.