Review: Teen Rom-Com 'Sex Appeal' Lacks Charm and Allure

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday January 14, 2022

'Sex Appeal'
'Sex Appeal'  (Source:Hulu)

Having sex for the first time can be nerve-wracking, exciting, and awkward. Teen rom-com "Sex Appeal" — directed by Talia Osteen and written by Tate Hanyok (who portrays a teacher in the film) — follows overachieving, perfectionist, science-loving Avery (Mika Abdalla), who wants to ensure her first time is perfect.

After her long-distance boyfriend, Casper (Mason Versaw), says he wants them to have sex, Avery panics she won't be good. Determined to conquer sexual prowess, she creates an app for annual science fair STEMCon (which she calls her "prom") to facilitate good sex. She enlists the help of her best friend, Larson (Jake Short), to collect data and gain sexual experience.

Earning early admission to MIT, Avery loves "Star Trek," talks about Wonder Woman, and has "genius" spelled in elemental symbols in her bedroom. The film shoves the smart nerd trope down the audience's throats; I'm shocked she didn't wear glasses for a makeover! Avery doesn't feel like a real person; she's not a fully-developed character, but rather a trope or caricature.

Hindered by incessantly intrusive voiceover narration — that's neither funny nor insightful — the writing is weak and often obvious and redundant. Unfortunately, much of the acting by the leads is perfunctory and one-note, lacking depth or nuance.

Thankfully, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster portray Avery's delightful, supportive lesbian moms: Ma Deb (Cho, who's bisexual) and Mama Suze (Feimster, who's a lesbian). Both women are incredibly funny; I wish they were in the film more. Kim (Rebecca Henderson, who's also good) is Avery's queer "bonus mom," Ma Deb's partner.

Her moms separated, but live next door to each other, which feels very queer! They give Avery condoms and discuss contraception, consent, and body-shaming. But Avery queerphobically tells them they have no idea what it's like to lose their virginity, heteronormatively assuming only PIV sex is "real." Despite the abundance of queer characters — including Avery's moms and classmates — at times, the jokes weirdly seem to mock queer women, rather than feeling queer-inclusive.

Avery interviews her classmates on sex and desire. She calls Danica (Paris Jackson) her "Gandalf" regarding "sexual knowledge." Portraying a character unapologetically embracing their sexuality is great. But the film hammers the point as, amidst Avery's narration, Danica mimes oral sex.

"Sex Appeal" pays homage to classic rom-coms with allusions to "When Harry Met Sally" (a split screen of Avery and Larson on the phone), "10 Things I Hate About You" (Avery flashes Larson), and "Say Anything" (Avery holds a music-playing cell phone overhead).

Avery researches movies for her app. Weirdly, "Sex Appeal" acts like Hollywood stopped making teen movies in 1999, ignoring recent teen comedies addressing sex ("Booksmart," "Blockers," "Unpregnant," "Plan B," and "Yes, God, Yes," which focuses on female masturbation).

"Sex Appeal" frequently employs stylistic flourishes: The narrative rewinds like a VCR tape; there are home-movie-style flashbacks — one humorous flashback features Avery as a young child playing with her moms' vibrators and peculiar point-of-view shots; and there's a phallic imagery montage.

When Avery and Larson share sexual situations, the film cuts to pink-lit fantasy sequences allegorizing pleasure: Avery in an Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming routine, a rocket launch, and Larson as a miner exploring a pink-red tunnel.

Yet, I don't understand why Avery and Larson are friends, beyond shared history. They lack rapport or chemistry. Despite the film succumbing to the sexist concept of supposed "friend zoning," which Larson claims Avery did to him, "Sex Appeal" features a gender subversion regarding perspectives on sex. Larson believes love and sex are connected; Avery doesn't. She's also not concerned with people's feelings, which eventually becomes a problem in her relationships.

Paralleling Avery's coming-of-age journey, "Sex Appeal" falters in the first two acts but improves by the end. It jettisons the obnoxious narration, and features authentic and bittersweet conversations, that are, surprisingly, not trite or saccharine. The film works better in its serious, rather than jocular, moments. Eventually finding its footing, the film reaches a refreshingly heartfelt conclusion.

"Sex Appeal" attempts to blaze a trail on teen films about female sexuality. Despite paying homage to classic rom-coms, frank discussion of sex, and a refreshing ending, rather than innovating and telling a captivating story it's ultimately overshadowed by better teen films.

"Sex Appeal" premieres on Hulu on Friday, January 14, 2021.