Raunchy “Blockers” is a fresh take on teenage virginity narratives

by Jordan McDonald | 4/3/18 1:40am

“Pitch Perfect” screenwriter Kay Cannon made a splash at the South by Southwest Film Festival when she became the first female director to premiere an R-rated comedy with her film “Blockers.” With the teen comedy — Cannon’s directorial debut — hitting theaters Friday, the Hopkins Center for the Arts hosted an advance screening of the film over the weekend, giving Dartmouth the opportunity to view the teen drama a week before it hits theaters. “Blockers” strikes a balance between social commentary, raunchiness and dry humor, managing to get laughs out of diverse audience while posing some important questions about gender, sex, youth and family.

“Blockers” follows childhood best friends Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), Sam (Gideon Adlon) and their overprotective parents on the night of their senior prom. Embracing the cliché of prom night romance, the group of girls commit to a sex pact in which they all agree to lose their virginity on the night of the dance. But when Julie’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann) uncovers their plans, she teams up with the fathers of her daughters’ friends to stop the teenage trio. 

The trailers for “Blockers” made me initially apprehensive to see the film. Although dubbed a “feminist take” on teenage sexuality in film, the trailers recalled many of the tropes that have troubled representations of teenage girls on screen. Playing up the hysteria and angst of parents concerned with “protecting” their daughter’s virginity, the pre-release clips seemed to reinscribe the misogynistic obsession with female sexual virtue and chastity. Thankfully, the film does not engage with these ideas uncritically — instead, “Blockers” reveals the comic irrationality of double standards, allowing its characters to see the error of their ways on their own terms. 

In on-screen treatments of teen sex, the fathers of teenage girls are typically cartoonish guard dogs of their daughters’ sexuality. For their daughters, sex and dating is discouraged and heavily regulated. The father who threatens his daughter’s date with a shotgun has become something of a caricature of American fatherhood. Kayla’s father (John Cena) plays the role of the overprotective father in “Blockers” when he throws her date through a wall in her hotel room. Thankfully, his actions do not go unchecked, as Kayla rightfully reminds her father that she can make her own choices and protect herself. Where teenage boys are concerned, it is rare that their on-screen guardians attempt to control their sexual or romantic lives — unless, of course, the boys in question are not heterosexual. 

Refreshingly, “Blockers” challenges these paradigms by offering alternatives for the ways that parents can relate to their children, especially where fathers and their daughters are concerned.  In “Blockers,” the often sexist and homophobic underpinnings of our cultural interest in virginity unfold over the course of the plot. For Sam, a closeted lesbian, the desire to join her friends in the virginity pact reveals the heteronormative expectations set out for her. There is little room for her same-sex attractions to be validated in a virginity narrative that traditionally follows heterosexual partners. Desperate to retain the bonds of her friendship, Sam vows to have sex with a guy. Bound for college in a few months, she wants to lose her virginity to her high school sweetheart while senior year is still in swing. The distinct personalities of the trio help to ground the story as their prom night turns into an unimaginable mess.

Convinced that Julie’s romantic life will only meet disastrous ends, Lisa determines to prevent her from ruining her life. By virtue of being a woman, in Lisa’s eyes, her daughter can only by used or abandoned in a sexual relationship. But Kayla’s mother Marcie (Sarayu Blue) will have none of this. Calling Lisa out for her double standard, Marcie emphasizes the importance of raising their daughters in opposition to the world’s misogyny. Over the course of the night, as the perspectives of each character are offered and everyone’s respective plans are foiled, it becomes clear that “Blockers” is less a teen movie than a film about how we relate to the young people in our lives. 

With crude humor and nudity, the actions of adults become comic fodder for the film’s story. Whether they are overprotective, over-sharers or simply absent from their children’s lives, the parents in “Blockers” are the true subjects of the film’s interest. The movie indulges in the genre’s obligatory scenes of adults in teenage settings, unable to blend in. In over their head and too prideful to quit, the adults in the film find themselves wholly embarrassed by their actions by the end of the night. Sure, the children stumble too, but they ultimately make the right decisions without parental interference.

“Blockers” is an exploration of what it means for parents to let go, apologize, fail, support and love their kids, using humor to articulate the difficult and overwhelming work of guiding another person into adulthood. In the end, “Blockers” asserts that the kids are all right, but we could all do better by them.