Film Review: Blockers

by Carrie Kahn on April 6, 2018

Don’t let anyone Block you from seeing this smart, funny comedy

Parents Mitchell (John Cena, l.), Lisa (Leslie Mann), and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) try to figure out what their daughters are up to on prom night. 

The teen sex comedy is given a refreshing update in Blockers, director Kay Cannon’s feature film directorial debut. Cannon, an actress and screenwriter best known for the Pitch Perfect series, brings a welcome feminine touch to a genre that’s typically directed by men, for a teenage boy audience (e.g., American Pie). Here, though, working from a script by brothers Brian and Jim Kehoe, Cannon’s focus is a trio of teen girls, friends since kindergarten, and their somewhat hastily made pact to lose their virginity on prom night. That the trio’s well intentioned but clueless parents set out to stop them (hence the film’s title) brings a layer of fun to the proceedings that widens the film’s audience from rebellious teens to adults, who may find themselves alternatively relating to the girls or the parents at any given moment.

Such is the uniqueness of Cannon’s film, and part of its pleasures; both sets of protagonists are given equal attention, and neither is made out to be completely right or completely wrong. The characters and the situations are treated with respect, and the character motivations always feel authentic and honest. But that’s not to say the film is some sort of hokey after school special; on the contrary, while it maintains a definite overriding sweetness, it has more than its share of genuine, very funny laugh-out-loud moments, thanks both to the Kehoes’ smart screenplay and the film’s game lead actors.

Disapproving dad Mitchell (John Cena) meets daughter Kayla’s (Geraldine Viswanathan) prom date Connor (Miles Robbins).

As the girls, Gideon Adlon (Sam), Kathryn Newton (Julie), and Geraldine Viswanathan (Kayla) defy typical teen girl stereotypes with their portrayal of complicated, multi-dimensional girls struggling with independence and growing up as their high school days draw to close. You could easily imagine Lady Bird’s Christine fitting right in with these three. When each girl is first introduced, you might think you know her type — Sam is quiet and hesitant; Julie is the pretty prom queen type with a cute boyfriend, Austin (Graham Phillips); and Kayla is the tomboy athlete — but we soon see that each girl is so much more than these quick and easy first impressions. Sam has a big secret she has yet to reveal; Julie worries about her single mom, and Kayla is ready for new experiences that don’t necessarily mesh with her sporty image.

The girls’ parents are equally well cast, with some of the finest comic actors working today letting loose in the parental roles. John Cena is cast against type as Mitchell, Kayla’s dorky and overprotective dad; Ike Barinholtz is Hunter, Sam’s somewhat irresponsible and dimwitted divorced dad; and Leslie Mann earns the film’s MVP title as Lisa, Julie’s worried, mother-hen single mom, who fears losing her daughter and best friend (“Send me photos every 30 minutes,” she tells Julie when Julie leaves for the prom).

When the parents inadvertently discover the girls’ plan, via a very funny scene in which they try to decode emojis in a series of text messages, the parents set out, intent on stopping their daughters from making what they are sure is a huge mistake. Of course misadventures and hilarity ensue on the parents’ quest, which produces some of the film’s biggest laughs. These include an ill-advised and atypical beer chugging contest, a car crash that yields some Fast and Furious jokes, an encounter with Austin’s sexually freewheeling parents (Gary Cole and Gina Gershon, clearly enjoying themselves), and, in perhaps the movie’s funniest scene, a remarkable bit of physical comedy from Mann, who finds herself trapped in her daughter’s post-prom hotel room, and must carefully and noiselessly extricate herself ASAP.

Longtime friends Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan, l.), Julie (Kathryn Newton), and Sam (Gideon Austin) head off to prom with dates Connor (Miles Robbins, l.), Austin (Graham Phillips), and Chad (Jimmy Bellinger).

The supporting cast shines as well, which adds to the fun. Miles Robbins, as Connor, Kayla’s man-bun wearing prom date, gets big laughs by projecting a new-agey sensitivity that contrasts with his reputation as a drug connoisseur (he’s known as “The Chef” for his proclivity for baking drugs into delicious snacks). And June Diane Raphael and Hannibal Buress, as Sam’s mom and step-dad, nearly steal the show in a few small scenes.

But what makes Blockers so original is that for all its broad comedic moments – and there are many – it’s also smartly written, especially in terms of its portrayal of its teen girl heroines. These are no damsels in distress who need to be rescued, but complex, thoughtful young ladies, whose sexual agency and decision making processes are treated with respect and consideration, in a way not seen in previous sex comedies, where the boys’ quest to get laid is paramount, and the needs and feelings of their conquests is treated as an afterthought, if addressed at all. Cannon has changed that dynamic, and you don’t realize what a glaring omission not having a female-centric sex comedy has been until you see it play out here, in realistic situations that find the girls taking ownership of themselves and their decisions.

Of course lessons are learned and bonds are forged, but, in a nice touch, the parents learn as much as their daughters, especially about trust and letting go. Barinholtz gets a particularly well-crafted scene with Adlon towards the film’s end that allows him to show some dramatic range, in a genuinely believable and poignant moment. And Lisa and Julie and Mitchell and Kayla also have heart-to-hearts, but, to the movie’s credit, these bits never feel heavy-handed or cloying, but simply like the natural outgrowth of the parents’ realization that their kids are growing up, and are going to be just fine. For a sex comedy that isn’t afraid to go all out (a domino effect vomiting scene in a limo is funnier that it sounds), Cannon has actually made a fresh and charming picture that doesn’t use retrograde notions of teen girl sexuality as its premise. Instead, Cannon’s given us an honest, true, and often ridiculously funny coming of age portrait that should set a new standard for teen sexcapade comedies.

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Blockers opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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