Even before it premiered to a boisterous reception at the SXSW Film Festival, “Blockers” was already famous from its red band trailer as that movie where John Cena funnels beer into his anus. That’s one of the more outrageous gags in director Kay Cannon’s inspired sex comedy, but it’s hardly the only one that hits its mark. Cannon’s directorial debut joins “Neighbors,” “Superbad” and “Old School” as an inspired party movie that merges juvenile humor with genuine observations about the gap between teen mayhem and adult responsibilities. Cannon gives equal footing to the sexual aims of its young protagonists attempting to lose their virginity on prom night and the nervous parents keen on stopping them. The difference here is that women rule the show, resulting in a woke “American Pie” for the text message age.
With five credited screenwriters, “Blockers” may seem like it has too many cooks in the kitchen, but the streamlined plot never feels too stuffed. The bulk of the suburban action unfolds over the course of a very long day, and it’s stretched across two dynamics loaded with the appeal of a charismatic ensemble. Each family unit has a specific set of interlocking conflicts: Single mom Lisa (a wonderful Leslie Mann) is in denial about the impending departure of her daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton) for college, while beefy dad Mitchell (John Cena, playing up his macho archetype to great effect) dotes over his daughter Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) as if they’re best friends. Dopey divorcee Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) just wants his introverted daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon) to have a good time, recognizing that she’s closeted and totally cool with it.
This smarmy parental trio befriend each other in an opening scene that makes for an endearing comedy setup no matter what happens next, but their bond is just a preamble for the misadventures around the corner. As prom nears, Julie announces to her friends at the school cafeteria that she plans to have sex at the end of the night (“That’s nice, I’m having soup,” Sam replies, eying a cute girl nearby). In short order, Julie talks her pals into making a pact — that all three will lose their virginity over the course of the evening. For Julie, that just means sealing the deal with her longtime boyfriend (Graham Phillips), while Kayla has her eye on a druggy party boy (Miles Robbins) and Sam, still not out to her friends, decides to roll the dice with a portly goofball she couldn’t care less about (Jimmy Bellinger).
After awkwardly saying goodbye to their folks, they hit the road, not realizing that their nervous parents can see their text messages on a home computer. As the adults frantically sift through a series of innuendo-laden emojis and hilariously attempt to interpret them, they’re so mortified about their kids’ plan that they decide to track them down before they can seal the deal.
Well, some of them are mortified, anyway. The levelheaded Hunter tries to stop the others from ruining their kids’ night, failing miserably in a mad dash to the car and pulled along for the ride anyway. So begins a rambunctious trip around town, as the adults trail a limo carrying their increasingly intoxicated offspring from the prom to a house party and finally to a swanky hotel as the hijinks keep building. Yet in the midst of a bizarre car crash, ample vomit, and awkward bedroom antics, Cannon finds room for both groups to talk through their dilemmas, and “Blockers” manages to be a sincere portrait of parental anxieties and coming-of-age ruminations even as it keeps the ridiculous gags in check.
Much of the movie’s appeal stems from its hard-R dialogue, which doesn’t skimp on letting its young women speak freely about their sexual curiosities. (“Penises are not for looking at,” Kayla says when Sam voices her reservations. “They’re for use. Like plungers.”) The script is so loaded with inspired one-liners that the SXSW premiere could have used subtitles to clarify some of the dialogue buried by laughter. But Cannon juggles the physical humor just as well, including one prolonged bit that finds the parents snooping around one household while another couple engages in a blindfolded sex game, inadvertently grabbing hold of the wrong people’s genitals. In another brilliant slapstick sequence, Mann (in her very best performance to date) ducks and rolls around a hotel room to spy on her daughter.
The girls, by comparison, seem pretty normal. They’re out to have a good time and find it, while their parents’ obsessive behavior reveals more about their own insecurities than any real dangers faced by their children. It’s a clever inversion of the usual teen sex comedy dynamic, because nobody really does anything seriously wrong and for the most part, the kids are alright. Cannon’s previous writing credits include all three “Pitch Perfect” movies, but that trilogy’s cheeky humor gives way to more believable portraiture that gives the cartoony twists a realistic foundation.
Still, “Blockers” takes the safest route to a tidy resolution, and a few clumsy transitions provide reminders that it’s basically a series of vignettes spread across a linear trajectory established in the opening act. The heart-to-heart conversations arrive right on cue, the movie so eager to please that even as it has an air of progressiveness to its female-centric plot, it always plays things safe. Nobody has a devious agenda and everybody turns out just fine.
We’ve come a long way since the era of John Hughes: The sexual politics of “Blockers” have been mapped out so carefully that it’s impossible to assail the raunchiness for crossing a line. But that’s part of the point: The parents assume the worst in part because they fail to understand that sexually-charged teens aren’t actually doing something wrong because they want to go all the way, and by the time they realize they’ve gone too far in their mission it’s too late to pull back.
The younger performers are all in tune with the material, which finds Newton in the role of the most traditional horny teen, Viswanathan as a hilarious wild card, and Adlon as a credible wall flower. They’re mostly just mirrors for their parents to project their own regrets. “God, why is sex so bad?” one teen asks her dad, and the question doesn’t require an answer. In “Blockers,” sex is a giant red herring, the kind of end goal that’s only an issue if you choose to make a big deal out of it. The real dilemma is whether the parents and the kids can make peace with the reality that everybody has to grow up.
Cannon’s first feature stands out because the genre has so rarely received a woman’s touch, and it’s evident in the way the movie pokes fun at masculinity by making it irrelevant. The men aren’t pigs; they’re just objects of desire for young women keen on celebrating their freedom and finding it in a story that lets them take charge. There’s an innocence to this premise that lends freshness to every vulgar turn. When Cena finally gets a funnel stuffed up his behind, an act required to gain entry to a teen house party, his eyes bulging in mortal fear as Mann couches him through it. This time, it’s the guy that gets screwed, and the inversion of the formula is complete. There’s a genuine satisfaction that comes from the sense that this moment has been a long time coming.
“Blockers” premiered at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. It opens theatrically on April 6.