Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Universal Studios.
Beneath the whacking, smutty, in-your-face teen sex farce, Blockers is a mature, thoughtful exploration of parental responsibility and the capacity of burgeoning adults to navigate life’s difficult choices. All that, plus men sucking beer up their butts.
The key to the film is that protagonists are the antagonists: a trio of parents — one woman, two guys — who embark on a frenzied odyssey to prevent their teenage daughters from fulfilling a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. Leslie Mann is a single mom, Lisa, who’s already going nuts over her daughter, Julie (Kathryn Newton) — whom she treats as a BFF— going away to college. John Cena is Mitchell, the musclebound dad who doesn’t like the smirk on his daughter’s prom date’s face and tells her how to handle the knife he slipped into her clutch. (“Stab, turn, drag.”) Ike Barinholtz is Hunter, the divorced, alcoholic father who tries to make up for years of neglect in one night.
The three parents are together when their kids leave for prom and Julie’s computer pings. The emojis being texted tell a convoluted story of eggplants, trees, and yas queens. Not as hard to decipher are the words, “Sex Pact 2018.” Incidentally, the non-family-friendly version of the title can be discerned in the ads in the placement of a rooster above it.
If you think the premise of Blockers sounds a mite old-fashioned, even reactionary, so do the movie’s other characters — not just the kids, but adults like Mitchell’s wife, Marcie (Sarayu Blue), who says they’re applying a different standard to daughters than sons. The girls aren’t damsels in distress, she goes on. They should be free to explore their own sexuality. And Lisa, Mitchell, and Hunter understand that — they’re dumb, but not stupid — but go forward anyway, enacting some ancient guardianship ritual that feels right even when it’s wrong. Which is incredibly funny — provided they’re not your parents.
Blockers is the directorial debut of Kay Cannon, who wrote Pitch Perfect. I’d burn my boats and say she’s the best thing to happen to comedy in years if she hadn’t also written Pitch Perfect 2 and 3, which were, to borrow the parlance of those movies, a-ca-caca. She’s a sensational director, though. Not graceful but hyperalert to every ejaculation, verbal and otherwise. You can tell she has a background in improv comedy because the actors seem giddy with the freedom she gives them. Good as Brian and Jim Kehoe’s script is, it’s the all-in performances that put every scene over the top.
Mann hasn’t been this delightful since Knocked Up: She can simultaneously jabber and look bereft. Cena — the ex-wrestler with the sweet face and humongous upper body — indicates more than acts, but he’s so dopey and vulnerable that you can’t help loving him. Barinholtz — of The Mindy Project — should be Blockers’ breakout star. At any given moment his face is doing five different things, all of which are funny and some of which are downright alarming: He looks dissipated, haunted, like a human car wreck.
The daughters are almost as entertaining as their parents, and so self-possessed that even I, a father of two teenage girls, felt reasonably comfortable with most of their decisions, though their projectile vomiting from drugs and alcohol made me think I ought to give them a call after the screening. I want them to know that just because Dad ended up in the emergency room as a freshman after six tequila sunrises doesn’t mean it has to be a rite of passage.
One thing that’s weird: seeing Newton driving another poor mother crazy. She played Reese Witherspoon’s daughter in Big Little Lies, in which she hatched a plan to auction off her virginity for charity. Witherspoon handled the situation only marginally better. As Kayla, the daughter of Mitchell and Marcie, Geraldine Viswanathan is a dizzy charmer with crack timing. Watch her explain to her lab partner (Graham Phillips, who holds his own) that she intends to sleep with him after prom, to which he says, “We’ll see which way the wind blows,” and she replies, “It’s going to blow your dick into my vagina” without missing a beat. An apt Gideon Adlon as Hunter’s daughter Sam has some broadly written scenes in the first part of the film, in which she agrees to lose her virginity to a boy while ostentatiously swooning over a girl (Ramona Young) in her class. But her scenes with her prom date (Jimmy Bellinger) are small masterpieces of revulsion and forbearance.
The Kehoe brothers know their way around farce, and Cannon knows how to stage it for maximum squirms and shrieks. A barn burner of a scene turns on Gary Cole, Gina Gershon, a pair of blindfolds, and a sexual encounter that’s too painful to recount — or even think back on. Another acrobatic scene — Lisa in a hotel room trying to avoid revealing her presence — ends on a lovely and surprising note.
I’ve heard Blockers compared to Superbad (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were co-producers on both), to which it bears little resemblance. Superbad is a boys’ dark odyssey, a teen sex comedy in which fear and confusion are built in. Blockers, for all its high-velocity raunch and drug abuse, is fundamentally positive. The parents project like mad on their daughters and finally need to learn to separate themselves. Their daughters turn out to be wrong about many things but need to learn that for themselves. The movie has the quality of an ancient, bacchanalian comedy in which humans are reckless fools but the forgiving spirit of comedy itself leaves everyone safe and in one piece — albeit, in one case, with an exploding butt.