Pretty in Scarlet

by maxmosher

My apologies, Loyal Readers, but I have been suffering a recurring cold, which has me, instead of updating my blog and finding a much-needed job, laying on the couch, drinking orange juice-spiked ginger ale and watching reruns of Dawson’s Creek. Yesterday I caught the episode in which Dawson and the future Mrs. Cruise FINALLY declared their love for each other, slow-dancing at a random wedding, while the ‘bad one’ Abbey plunges to her death off the pier, because she was drinking with the future Mrs. Ledger and because, like, she’s the ‘bad one’.

It’s not a radical thing to say that I didn’t relate to the physically-mature, over-articulate teenagers of Dawson’s Creek. I read recently that high school TV shows and movies work because it’s a time and place of a lot of dramatic ‘firsts’, but most of my firsts came later in university. For many of us high school is simply the awkward waiting room between childhood and the freedom of college. The inability to relate to the problems of the popular kids was practically the thesis of the cult hit Freaks and Geeks, whose very first shot featured a football player telling his cheerleader girlfriend “I love you so much, sometimes it scares me,” before the camera panned down below the bleachers to the “geeks” the show would actually follow.

The good news is, it’s getting better. It’s only fitting for the decade which saw video games, Star Wars and vinyl-collecting become anti-cool cool, that the outcasts would soon be the heroes. Usually, it’s awkward guys, like Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad. (Jonah Hill went after the unbelievably-cool Jules, played by Emma Stone, and I remember thinking, “That girl could be a star.”)

When unpopular girls are portrayed they are either angry and shrew-like, flipping the bird to the entire school (like Kat in Ten Things I Hate about You or Janice Ian in Mean Girls) or desperately want to be part of the ‘in crowd’, waiting for the popular boy to escort them to the prom in their refashioned pink 1960’s gown (Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink).

This is why Emma Stone is so refreshing in Easy A, playing a girl who’s ignored at school but, at least initially, doesn’t seem to care. Like Ellen Page in Juno, here is a high school heroine who seems aware of a bigger world outside of high school, one in which the opinions of the jocks and the cheerleaders won’t matter one bit.

Stone plays Olive, a teenager who is smart and funny but doesn’t have many friends. Some critics questioned whether a girl as interesting and pretty as Emma Stone would really be unpopular in high school, which only shows how long since they graduated: being different and well-spoken, especially for girls, doesn’t exactly ensure high school popularity. The only company Olive seems to have is her tart-tongued best friend, who refers to her as “bitch” and seems to have wandered out of Regina George’s entourage.

But Olive seems pretty comfortable with herself. In my favourite sequence, she spends all weekend at home in her bedroom with a music-playing greeting card. When she first opens it, she recoils from Natasha Bedingfield’s ‘Pocket Full of Sunshine’, but in a hilarious montage she gradually gives into the song, painting her nails with her dog, singing it in the shower and eventually using a hairbrush all karaoke-style, giving herself up entirely to the infectious beat. Who hasn’t spent weekends like that? She’s having a great time, not waiting by the telephone for some boy to call or the popular girl to take her shopping.

Olive even enjoys hanging out with her family, curled up on the couch watching DVDs like real teenagers do with their parents. But, given that her parents are sex-talking Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, who can blame her?

Pressured by her gossipy friend, Olive lies and says that she lost her virginity to an older college guy. Almost instantaneously, she becomes the school skank and finds herself preferring notoriety to invisibility. Inspired by her reading of The Scarlet Letter, she sews a read A on a series of reconstructed corset tops (kudos to the costume designer, they are sexy in a classy way) and takes pleasure in egging on the school’s prickly Christian club.

Of course, once the lies start they are very difficult to stop, and Olive finds herself taking pity on her gay friend and helping him spread the rumour that they slept together. Rather than motivated by popularity or a boy, as Lindsay Lohan was in Mean Girls, several times Olive is moved to degrade her own image by good, old fashioned sympathy. The film warns against going too far for others and of the fine line between rumour and reality: if everyone thinks you’re a slut, is there any difference from actually being one?

As in Mean Girls, a dark-haired, chin-clefted hunk with a heart of gold turns up periodically, with no real connection to the plot, but with the obvious purpose of supplying a predictable happy ending. One wonders if film makers sincerely think that if the credits roll and the heroine’s single, we’ll leave the theatre thinking she’ll die alone.

I related to Olive as someone who was funny and interesting in high school but was never going to be popular. While Olive gets her perfect John Hughes ending (there’s even a musical number!) for most of us social outcasts it’s good enough to know that high school doesn’t last forever and that there’s a whole big world of ‘firsts’ out there.