Sex Ed is self-reflective, which I think is a wonderful thing. Let me take a second a put this into perspective.
Last week, I was a guest on a podcast called The Fifth Opinion and we discussed Boyhood. The main complaint by the podcast host, Jordan C. Johnson, was that Boyhood brought up all these interesting things about growing up but failed to examine them–the movie was all action without thoughtful reaction. Which means that it became, for him, a very hollow film. For the record, I enjoyed Boyhood. But I do think there is something vacuous about it. So I agree that there is hollowness, but I think that hollowness is probably on purpose. And it’s probably why many people have responded so well to the film. Viewers can pour themselves into the film and give it meaning/depth/purpose where it otherwise lacks meaning/depth/purpose. There are a slew of small, intimate moments that will be familiar to viewers, that will make viewers say, “I did that too!” Like when Mason is a kid and looking at lingerie ads: I did that. Which means the movie becomes, in a way, a mirror that the viewer sees herself/himself in. The movie takes on depth when the viewer starts asking questions: “Was my childhood like this?” “Did I have that moment of exploration? That moment of fear? That moment of hope? That moment of confusion? That sort of conversation with my dad?” There are people who will really identify with the film, because it is, in a way, a film that plays into the ego of the viewer by reflecting back to the viewer moments from the viewer’s life–inducing high level nostalgia. And there are others who won’t want to be bothered to think the film through. And there will be others who want the film to deliver its own value, rather than ask so much of the viewer–that asking that much of the viewer is sort of a cop out.
I had all this in mind while I watched Sex Ed, because Sex Ed does not cop out. It is, like Superbad, a coming-of-age comedy that mixes classic gross-out humor with some serious exploration of the world around the main characters.
That exploration is due to the character of Ed Cole (Haley Joel Osment). Ed Cole is 23 and not happy with his life, and he is very curious about why his life is not going how he wants it to go or thought it would go. This gives the film a rhythm where Cole takes action, mixed results occur, then he turns to one of several friends for feedback/advice. Then he takes his next action, mixed results occur, and he turns to one of several friends for feedback/advice. etc.
I can see critics complaining about this, or even some viewers, as the feedback and advice the friends are giving can feel either preachy or cliche. But. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, and I think how the friends deliver this information is unique to the characters.
I like that the characters in the film are a collision of archetypes. The movie opens with Cole working in a bagel shop and being berated by a HS or college QB played by Parker Young (RIP Suburgatory, I’ll miss you). Cole goes home to an apartment he shares with his best friend, JT (Glenn Powell). Glenn Powell looks sort of similar to Parker Young. If not as identical twins, at least in the sense that both have The Jawline, have lots of abs, and can play characters with the alpha male demeanor.
Where Young’s QB is the douche you expect, Powell’s JT is a sexual deviant, alpha type who is loyal, caring, and sweet.
Where Parker Young was a contrast to JT that shows off JT’s depth, Ally, JT’s girlfriend (Castille Landon), is foiled by the women in the movie. By that, I mean that she is dimensional where the other two female characters are one-dimensional. A character played by Abby Elliot is sex crazed and broken. And Cole’s main love interest, Pilar (Lorenza Izzo) is seemingly sweet but actually pretty immature and superficial. Ally isn’t sexually desperate like Abbey Elliot’s character, but she is sexually active and explorative. And where Pilar starts nice but ends up being too all over the place, allows what she feels in the moment to dictate her actions, flipping from one emotion to another, Ally is loyal, sure of what she wants in the moment and long term.
This extends too to another mash-up character: Sydney (Retta) the sass-charged black woman who tells it like it is who is also the wise bartender. Usually “the wise bartender” is an older male, not always white but often white.
So even though the film is using cliches like “the wise bartender” and the “alpha male who loves sex”: the cliches are refreshed by having multiple primary characteristics. So even though you’re getting information about life that might seem cliche/preachy, from characters that might seem cliche, the characters are unique riffs on the familiar archetypes, and they deliver information in their own way, a way that I would argue is fresh. It’s a modern take on a classic problem, like Adventureland.
And ultimately, who cares if the information is something that’s repetitive. It’s sort of like the sexual education provided in the film. The kids in the film don’t have someone to talk to who is knowledgable about sexual education, nor someone who they are comfortable talking to about the subject. So they have all these misconceptions about sex, about the risks and the joys, etc. Haley Joel Osment is the person providing that basic but crucial information. Likewise, there are kids and 20-somethings who have no clue about what’s going on in life because they haven’t had anyone sit down and explain things to them, or maybe they have had someone try and talk to them but they haven’t paid attention.
Sex Ed serves an important role in society, a role that something like Boyhood can’t (since Boyhood lacks the reflective element that creates educational moments). There will be people who see Sex Ed and learn something that benefits their long term health and happiness. Or who come away feeling validated about the decisions they have made and the goals they are struggling to pursue but pursuing nonetheless. Sex Ed will be someone’s first exposure to these concepts of “proactiveness” and “masculinity not as this douchy, overbearing alpha persona, but rather as simply knowing what you want and going after it with confidence.” Or the film will be the voice that makes these concepts finally click for someone who has known about them but hasn’t thought so much about them. I think that’s necessary. And the movie is, I think, hilarious. Both of those things are great.
Boyhood is more of a movie that says “see, things happen” where as Sex Ed is the type of movie that says “when you act this way, these things happen.” Neither is necessarily better than the other, as “see, things happen” can make for some great fucking films–I am in the camp that loves Tree of Life. But I think a majority of the films we cherish and respect are “when you act this way, these things happen” kind of films. Sex Ed delivers that with humor, humility, and passion.
Oh, and there is great, great music.