Whoever said getting an ‘A’ was easy? The high-school genre will try almost anything to get top marks, dabbling with political satire (Election), film noir (Brick) and even sci-fi (Donnie Darko).
But talent borrows, genius steals – and the quickest cheat is to pilfer from the classics: Austen in Clueless, Shakespeare in 10 Things I Hate About You, and now Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The latter is the ostensible bedrock of Will Gluck’s comedy, centred on a virginal student whose white lie about losing her v-card spirals into scandal when she’s targeted by pious Bible-bashers. But is it really a riff on an old book?
A running joke here – which apparently extends to the director himself – is that nobody has actually read Hawthorne’s work, instead basing their opinions on Hollywood’s maligned 1995 Demi Moore adap.
This isn’t really about 19th Century novels; it’s a movie about movies, and the lit-crit gambit forms but one aspect of a film going out of its way to score extra credit by cataloguing an entire genre, a kind of Once Upon A Time In High School.
On the syllabus: Mean Girls-style cattiness, post-American Pie cringe and a whole new lexicon of surreal slang (‘cowbell,’ ‘lemon squeeze’) for a generation of kids who weren’t born when Cher Horowitz attended class.
But mostly there are endless John Hughes references, Gluck pilfering from the genre’s pioneer the same way Leone once stole from John Ford.
Emma Stone’s arch, knowing central performance itself recalls Winona Ryder in Heathers, the too-cool-for-school outsider who sees through the mistaken-identity parade of playground cliques and decides to have some subversive fun.
Rarely off screen, Stone carries proceedings with such verve she’d be a shoo-in for big awards if this wasn’t a teen flick.
Gluck explains in the Making of that every Olive auditionee had to mock up a webcast confession; Stone sent hers within hours while other actresses were still quibbling over what format to shoot in.
That spontaneity and lack of bullshit shows: Stone’s got the husky drawl to nail the film’s ace one-liners and the physicality to meet its screwball demands (her faux-slut sashay is a thing of wonder).
But she’s also unafraid to flirt with unlikeability, as olive’s reputation goes to her head and she starts pimping her alter-ego out on imaginary trysts with bullied loners.
Remarkably, all this postmodernism – and this must be the most self-referential studio pic since Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang – has purpose. The film subverts the old Breakfast Club warning against judging by labels by suggesting that, sometimes, labels can be useful.
Even the inevitable happy ending has its roots in Olive’s open desire to play the John Hughes heroine. ‘A’ for ‘Artifice’, then?
Maybe. But Stone allows the film to have its cake and eat it. Star quality? She’s the real deal.
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