One of the many maxims with which we are brought up is that “honesty if the best policy.” Whether you are a practicing Catholic like me, or someone simply trying to live a good life (there are some graces in such a commitment), being truthful will take you far. There are also some, particularly as you get older, that will tell you that a little, so-called “white lie” is okay on certain occasions. The intention is always held up as being good. You tell children bedtime stories to keep them from experiencing the fear that comes with having to deal with real problems. I suppose that is the more innocent form of these prevarications. We tend to continue such policies as we get older most often in situations where we desire to spare the feelings of someone else. As many times as not, this leads to even greater problems. Much of what I am talking about describes today’s film Easy A (2010).
Indeed, Easy A delves into this subject from the start. Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone) is a high school girl who has seen one of these lies spiral out of control. She is speaking about this while confessing to her webcam, broadcasting on the internet. The subject of this confession makes up the rest of the film. Weeks previously, Olive’s best friend Rhiannon Abernathy (Aly Michalka) asks Olive to go camping. Not keen on an experience in the wild, Olive claims to have a date, but stays home instead. When they reconvene at school, Olive says that she has lost her virginity. This is the beginning of Olive’s problems. This false revelation is overheard by Marianne Bryant (Amanda Bynes), the matriarch of the campus group of overly zealous Christians. Olive and Marianne had not been friends before, and this new behavior puts Olive firmly in Marianne’s crosshairs. It also does not help that in their English Literature class they are reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a book written in the nineteenth century about adultery in the seventeenth century. When in the twenty-first century one of Marianne’s lackeys makes a comment that draws a sharp rebuttal from Olive, our Hester Prynne (look it up) is sent to the principal’s office. On the way there, Olive sees her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) coming out with a bloody nose. A later tête-à-tête between the two reveals that Brandon had been beaten up for being gay. To avoid future confrontations, Brandon comes up with a proposal: that they sleep with one another. Actually, his idea is that they pretend to do so in order to convince people at school that he is not gay. Remarkably, Olive agrees. Seeing the success this has for Brandon, her already flagging reputation, and to thumb her nose at Marianne, Olive decides to lean in to her new role. Other guys come to her, and in exchange for gift cards and other material benefits, she is willing to let others say that they have slept with her. She goes so far as to sew a red “A” onto her clothing as Hester Prynne is forced to do in the Hawthorne novel. In the process, Olive begins to alienate people close to her. The first is Rhiannon, who is jealous of the newfound attention Olive is receiving. Matters are made worse when Olive accepts a date with the boy on which Rhiannon has a crush. Then what little progress that Olive makes with Marianne is destroyed when Marianne’s boyfriend contracts a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and Marianne blames it on Olive. Not even her school guidance counselor, Mrs. Griffith (Lisa Kudrow), can help because she is the one who had slept with Marianne’s boyfriend. Olive’s first response to the situation is to get everyone with whom she agreed to say that they had relations to say that nothing happened, but none of them will go for it. Not even Brandon will step up for Olive. After coming out to his parents, they decide to move to another town. The worst comes, though, when Olive tries to get Mrs. Griffith to admit to the impropriety with Marianne’s boyfriend, which is also rebuffed. In retaliation, Olive goes to Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) and reveals the affair, causing an even bigger mess. With everything seemingly spiraling out of control, she seeks some advice from her mother, Rosemary (Patricia Clarkson), who tells her (in the most inappropriate way possible) to simply accept who she is and not worry what others think. Olive’s idea for doing so is to come clean, which she bills as a sex show online that she will be doing for a guy that she likes, “Woodchuck” Todd (Penn Badgley), so named because he is the person inside the school mascot. It is advertised in this manner to get people to watch it, and the movie has been her giving a flashback to the events of the past few weeks. Instead, it is her talking about the events of the film. As she finishes, Todd, who had been seeing past her elaborate ruse in the first place, shows up outside her window on a riding lawnmower, and they ride off together.
This last bit of Easy A is meant to be a play on the idea of chivalry referencing Olive earlier wondering whether the concept is dead. Todd also reenacts other 1980s teenage romantic comedy tropes with his visit. What is less old fashioned is her musing about the possibility of losing her virginity to him before ending her webcast. What is even less old fashioned is Rosemary relating to Olive about literally being a slut (her words) when she was her daughter’s age. Obviously, this kind of material makes talking about the film from a Catholic perspective tricky. While I do not approve of the subject matter, or how virtually all of the characters handle it (this is particularly true of how they portray the avowed Christians), what I do admire is Olive’s courage. When Jesus had His Passion, he did so in plain view of the entire community. He subjected himself to every type of pain and ridicule. By doing so, He made it so that whatever we are going through, He can empathize with us. Further, this act launched Christianity. In that moment, God was alone, but it brought to mind not only the sins that everyone around Him had committed, but showed them that there is transcendence in facing these moments. It is purgative, if nothing else. In this limited sense, you can call Olive’s webcast a kind of passion. It had much more limited results, but it took courage nonetheless.
There is no nudity in Easy A, thankfully. It is just too straightforward about high school kids having sex. I also do not like the fact that Olive apparently revels in her made up persona for a time, even if I do appreciate the confidence with which she approaches it. And yet, there are lessons to be gleaned even from a movie such as this one. Honesty really is the best policy. Olive certainly seems to feel better after coming clean.