★ / ★★★★
Here is yet another film that attempts to pull off dark comedy but its screenplay is so devoid of genuine human drama that it ends up simply parading forced bad behavior. It is supposed to be shocking in content, but those who have experience with films that deal with teenage angst are highly likely to end up unimpressed. In the middle of its desert boredom, I thought I’d rather revisit the likes of Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and Marcos Siega’s “Pretty Persuasion.” At least those films are not afraid to push the envelope so far that tension accumulates like a great storm about to burst.
The tale in this miscalculation involves a sixteen-year-old named Erica who engages in oral sex with older men while her friends (Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet) record from a distance. In exchange for their silence, the unsuspecting men are forced to provide cash. Erica is played by Zoey Deutch whose talents are wasted here. While she commands the camera every time she is in front of it, the character remains uninteresting throughout because Erica lacks believable interior details. Notice how the more dramatic scenes, particularly those between Erica and her mother (Kathryn Hahn), come across as awkward at best. On top of this, we are supposed to empathize with Erica somehow as she concocts a plan to punish the man (Adam Scott) who was accused of having molested her stepbrother (Joey Morgan).
The most convincing element about the film are its extras. For instance, look at the background of scenes taking place at school. These are not fake teenagers. They look, dress, and act like real teens with genuine thoughts and problems. Notice the way they stand in one place and carry themselves as they walk. When there is a fight, there is almost apathy in their eyes—like it is the sort of thing that happens around them every day.
Authenticity is a crucial element that teen comedy-dramas cannot buy with effects or create out of forced conflict. It must be written into the script as if it were the very marrow that maintains everything else. Look at the way Erica interacts with her friends. They are supposed to be enjoying each other’s company as miscreants but we, the audience, do not feel their joy of being bad. Even the parents are cardboard cutouts. The screenplay fails to provide a strong background in its subjects’ lives.
Some dark comedies offer such wild premises that we question whether they are supposed to be comedies. Here, I just found the whole charade to be repulsive. I felt as though Max Winkler, the director, never takes accusations of sexual molestation in a serious manner. Its approach is almost always flippant to the point where it disregards real-life issues and their consequences. Had there been a balance between hyperbole and subtlety, it could have made a strong statement about the current state of our society.