The premise of "The To Do List" – a teenager embarks on a mission to lose her virginity the summer before starting college – may have been a departure from writer and director Maggie Carey's personal experiences.
But much of the film borrows from her own life, including its 1993, Boise, Idaho setting (the year and the place Carey graduated high school) and the point of view of its lead character Brandy (Aubrey Plaza), who like Carey at that age, is a type-A overachiever.
"I just really wanted to tell the classic coming of age story when you're a teenager and you so badly want to know about something. In this case, this girl really wants to know about sex," Carey tells U.S. News. "She tries to prepare and basically learn as much as she can so she can have it and have it right."
Carey describes the film as a "dirty 'Sixteen Candles,'" but an "American Pie" from a woman's perspective would be an equally apt characterization. Things get pretty raunchy as Brandy – a valedictorian who hangs Hillary Clinton posters on her wall – meticulously tackles her goal. Not only does she want to lose her "v-card," but she wants to give it away to the local hottie (Scott Porter). And because she wants to be good at it, she insists on stopping at all the other proverbial bases along the way, using her bashful study buddy (Johnny Simmons) as a guinea pig.
"The setting of the '90s was really fun for the storytelling," Carey says. "A lot of these things that she had questions about she couldn't just Google."
Brandy must depend on the help of her sexpot older sister (Rachel Bilson), her amused girlfriends (Sarah Steele and Alia Shawkat) and her understanding mother (Connie Britton) to navigate her sexual awakening. Their bawdy conversations – using language and humor normally reserved for boys on the big screen – is a large part of the fun. But nothing compares to the scenes of Brandy's many "firsts," each more outrageous, awkward and rip-roaringly funny than the last.
"Initially, when I was writing the movie, it wasn't to be raunchy," Carey says. "It was more just being specific and being kind of frank and treating it with a little bit more honesty."
Aside from Brandy's point of view, Carey called upon her past to help furnish the setting. "I was big a scrapbooker in high school and I saved every memory possible," Carey says, which came in handy for the production and costume designers. Her high school friends also sent photos, clothes and "boxes of stuff" to use for research.
"What was hilarious was Aubrey, when she came in for her first [costume] sitting, she kept asking the costume designer to tailor things more and take them in," Carey says. "I was like, 'No, Aubrey. Everything in the '90s was so over-sized. We shopped in the boys section from The Gap.'"
Ironically, for all of the '90s accoutrements, "The To Do List" feels admirably (but also, kind of depressingly) progressive. Brandy's quest to develop a sense of sexual identity is treated humorously, but also without judgement or the blanket of a romantic end-game. It's also one of the few films released this summer with a female-centric plotline and – of even fewer – directed by a female filmmaker. Costing a meager $1.2 million, "The To Do List" will almost certainly make money, unlike the growing pile of testosterone-driven action films with nine figure budgets that have bombed at the box office this summer.
But in tone and subject matter, "The To Do List" should not be written off as a rom-com or a chick flick. Its stellar cast – which also includes Bill Hader (Carey's husband), Andy Samberg and Donald Glover – further widens its appeal. Besides, at some point or another, almost everyone has felt anxious about sex.
"When I was in high school, I always had this idea that you lost your virginity at junior year prom. It came and went, and I didn't lose my virginity and I was like, 'Wait, what?!'" Carey says. "You have as a teenager all these preconceived conditions of how these things are supposed to be. When they don't meet your expectations, it throws your world out of whack."