Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Easy A

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter serves as a faint narrative source for the 2010 film Easy A (2010; dir. Will Gluck). Emma Stone plays the good high school girl Olive who has never gotten in trouble, whose reputation is pure, and who actually does her homework. One of her good friends is a gay boy constantly bullied and harassed by students in their school. He convinces her to assist him in a ruse that he thinks will help him survive high school until graduation. At a party they pretend to be drunk and go into a bedroom where they make the sounds of wild sex. Everyone gathers outside the door, listening. As a result the boy is able to hold his head up in high school and pretend that he is a manly heterosexual. Other marginalized boys in the school—Asians or Hispanics or overweight boys--soon make similar requests of Olive. She starts charging them for her “services.” She soon acquires the reputation of a loose woman. Even her best friend is convinced, though Olive tries to tell her the truth.

The high school in this film is defined by a double standard. On the surface everyone seems to be outraged at Olive’s supposed sexual promiscuity. A group of pious campus Christians prays for her redemption, or at least for her to leave the school. The group leader does what she can to get her expelled. Beneath the surface, things are a different matter. The leader of the pious Christian group has a slow-witted boyfriend who hasn't been able to graduate high school for four years—she dates him because he’s safe and she can control him. She doesn’t know he's having an affair with a school guidance counselor, who contracts chlamydia from him as a result. She's the person Olive goes to for advice and counsel. To avoid her husband's learning about the affair, she spreads the rumor that the boy has been having an affair with Olive, who gave him the disease.

Matters quickly mushroom out of control. Olive has to deal with the consequences of the supposed promiscuity that has made her a scandal in the school. One boy who befriends her she discovers does so only because he wants to have sex with her. Everyone, her best friends, the other students at the school, the teachers, her parents, are more than willing to believe in her newly acquired reputation.

Easy A is entertaining and amusing but not very deep. Emma Stone’s work as Olive is excellent. She's an endearing actress. But most of the other characters are broadly drawn, almost cartoonish. The film gives the students little credit at all, suggesting they are all shallow dunderheads who care about nothing other than fashion, sex, and gossip. The adult characters are funny but wholly out of touch. Olive's parents want to be her best friends. They encourage her in whatever she does so that she will have self-esteem. When Emma's mother hears rumors about her daughter's promiscuity, she never questions the rumors, assumes they are true, and confesses to her own promiscuous youth. The father does the same. Olive learns far more about them than she ever wanted to know. All the adults are vapid hypocrites. There's really no one Olive can go to for advice. In the end she has to make her own decision about how to deal with her situation.

This film is not really an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter--it’s more a riff on the novel and its character Hester Prynne, who willingly wears a bright red A on her dress as admission of her adultery. That's what Olive does— she wears a big red scarlet A on her dress--except that she admits to behavior she hasn't engaged in—she wears the scarlet letter out of anger and resentment of what everyone so easily comes to believe about her.

Olive learns that she has to control her own situation, make her own decisions, and not allow social pressures and other people to lead her astray. This is a too prosaic a conclusion for a film that actually showed much promise.

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