Sean K. Cureton

Sex Ed Studies Masculinity & Virginity

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on June 27, 2015 at 4:05 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Sex Ed (2014)
Directed by Isaac Feder
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Harkening back to the pre-teen high jinks that made Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock such an unexpected comedy gem back in 2003, the sex comedy Sex Ed, written by the first time directing and writing pair of Isaac Feder and Bill Kennedy, comes as something of a shock at first glance, as it holds a certain warmth beneath the sheer vulgarity of its title and immediate subject matter. Starring a grown up, and especially rotund, Haley Joel Osment, the kid who once saw dead people is all grown up, and ready to make his mark molding the young minds of the next generation, like Jack Black in the aforementioned pre-teen comedy film to which Sex Ed holds more than a passing thematic association to. In Feder and Kennedy’s hands, the material that might have made for a light-hearted, romp, a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High, is given the space and breathing room to truly come into its own, with a story that evolves into one of the most nuanced and sentimentally poignant coming-of-age stories to come out of Hollywood in a long time. As a thirty-year-old virgin tasked with teaching sexual education to a class full of low income, underprivileged pre-teens, in an unspecified Barrio of sunny California, Osment’s Ed Cole is affectingly tragic, though the film never leaves much room for him to bemoan the persistent presence of his proverbial cherry, making his efforts in the classroom appear well intentioned, as opposed to feeling vindictively dictated. In Feder and Kennedy’s film, sexual experience is handled lightly and with an appropriate level of maturity, without becoming overtly puritanical in terms of narrative approach, leaving the decision of when, where, how, and with whom to have sex up to the viewer, which is as it should be, displaying a moral honesty heretofore unheard of in your typical sex comedy, farce, or satire.

Sex Ed, appropriately enough, starts it in a situation familiar to any recent college graduate in their 20s or 30s: in a dead end job, forced to cater to high school football stars undoubtedly getting more action between the sheets than you are. In establishing Osment as an everyman, Average Joe from the get go, Feder’s film is allowed to presumably hit the viewer where they live, the desperation and tragedy of Osment’s character apparent and readily sympathetic to more educated, young adult men then would probably openly admit it. In the film, Osment is forced to share an apartment with his close friend and near constant lothario roommate, who he more often than not walks in on mid-coitus with his exceedingly attractive girlfriend, which only serves to call attention to the fact that Osment, and the viewer by association, is still not getting any. Again, as is the case in the classroom, the disparity of sexual experience between Osment and his best friend and closest confidant is never a source of tension. Instead, it serves to bring them closer together, Osment’s predicament treated as nothing more than a temporary dry spell, which will soon be hurtled due to Osment’s underlying good will and respect of and for women.

Which brings the film, finally, around to Osment’s chief love interest in Kennedy’s script, who, instead of filling the misogynistic role of the manic-pixie-dream-girl, is a three-dimensional character with an agency that lies outside of any whims and desires which Osment may hold for her. Instead of playing right into Osment’s palm, the paramour in question, played by relatively unknown Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo, flirts with Ed cautiously, his position as her kid brother’s teacher never far out of mind, serving to ground their interactions with one another with just as much tension as there is melodramatic romance. When Izzo finally comes onto Osment, however, he can’t quiet seem to seal the deal, and is left alone with himself, where his forced to grapple with his own issues over his identity as a man, and what masculinity entails in terms of its socio-cultural associations and connotations. At first, there seems to be no easy answer to Osment’s dilemma, his status as a man negated by his inexperience with women and sex, making him out to be the man-child that society, and the comedy genre to which the film is a part, might readily cast him as so being. And yet, when Osment climactically confronts his landlady and local bartender (played with surprising subtlety and warmth by Parks and Recreation’s Retta) regarding his sexual inexperience once more in one of the film’s final scenes, he is presented with the advice and life lesson that being a man isn’t about having sex, but rather it is about knowing what you want, who you are, and going at and getting it, which is something that most publicly funded sexual education classes never teach you, but should.

In director Isaac Feder and screenwriter Bill Kennedy’s first feature film, both respectively and as a unit, the two novice filmmakers achieve something through the studio comedy genre that few writers and directors have ever achieved, even over the course of respective careers spanning entire decades. With Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment lends a human warmth new found in the budding, former child actor, his turn as sexual education teacher Ed Cole heartwarming and believable due to his character’s own insecurities regarding his personal sexual experiences, or rather a lack thereof. Where such teen-sex comedy classics as Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Superbad treat sex as the be all cure for man-boyhood, with the term virgin supersaturated with negative connotations from both a personal and cultural perspective, Sex Ed is a breath of fresh air, offering a more nuanced and abstract approach to its stated subject matter. There isn’t a beat in the film that falls flat, every joke landing with equal parts incisive insight and withering social commentary, with Osment leading his pack of pre-teen students with just as much flair and panache as Jack Black did in his prime. Feder’s directorial debut is really something quiet special, in that it’s a sex comedy with the balls to say something potentially controversial and divisive, but thanks in large part to Kennedy’s screenwriting debut, the two pull off said ballsiness with an equal amount of sincerity that proves their overarching rhetorical argument not only right, but cathartic in terms of the film’s overriding socially conscious maturity, which is a true rarity in the contemporary studio comedy, and the chief reason why Sex Ed is such an indispensable gem of a film.

Sex Ed is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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