Like actual puberty, movie puberty ain't pretty. Some films confidently lead audiences on a journey that seems painstakingly mapped out. Others are torrents of conflicting emotions and ideas whose epic identity struggle makes a relatively short ordeal feel like forever. Isaac Feder's Sex Ed is the latter kind. I'm glad to have laughed at, squirmed through, and dissected all the stuff that did and didn't work, but I'm mostly grateful it's all behind me.
Except for this review, of course. How do I distill Sex Ed's promise and problems without spoiling the whole thing or just saying, "Go watch it, and see for yourself?" I'm don't know how much of Bill Kennedy's screenplay was Frankenstein-ed via editing and other decisions to create the end result, versus what was on the page at the outset. I can say that this is three distinct movies in one. More accurately, it's three partial movies, none of which have any business harmonizing as much as they do:
Movie #1: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, a high school detention monitor who learns that his roomful of rambunctious teens is dangerously ignorant about sex. He begins a health-studies class and runs afoul of a local pastor (Chris Williams), whose son is one of Eddie's students. Trapped between a secular school policy that's oddly defined by religion-based community standards and a moral obligation to keep his kids from making terrible mistakes, Eddie gets creative in helping both sides find common cause.
Movie #2: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, an out-of-work math teacher who takes a job at a bagel joint to make ends meet. In the opening scene, he fends off two horny college kids who desperately want to screw in the bathroom. It's another sad reminder of the sex Eddie isn't getting (that he has, in fact, never gotten). Trapped between dealing with actual adult issues of employment, self-esteem, and life-planning, and the epic war raging in his pants, Eddie must get creative in navigating a world of freaks and geeks without either head exploding.
Movie #3: In Sex Ed, Haley Joel Osment plays Eddie Cole, a dorky virgin who winds up teaching health studies to rambunctious kids after school. One of his students, Tito (Kevin Hernandez), has an attractive older sister named Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), with whom Eddie falls in instant love. Pilar has a bad-ass boyfriend, of course, (Hector, played by Ray Santiago), and Eddie finds himself trapped between respecting Pilar's relationship, following his own heart (which beats with different kinds of affection for both Pilar and Tito), and managing insecurities about his inexperience.
Taken on their own, each of these concepts is a solid (if not already thoroughly explored) foundation for a movie. But the cross-over elements make things problematic and more than a bit ooky. Eddie's roommate, JT (Glen Powell), for example, is a mid-twenties Steve Stifler-type, a clueless poon-hound who offers terrible advice based on his rotating cast of conquests. This makes for a solid case of the fidgets when Eddie invites him to role-play in class, opposite fourteen-year-old girls whose boyfriends are pressuring them into various sex acts.
No, this newfound perspective doesn't make JT grow up and respect women--that honor falls to Ally (Castille Landon), the hook-up who turned out to be bona fide girlfriend material. Connecting these three dots with a solid line, rather than a dotted one, would have made things really interesting; it also would have bled into Movie #4, in which the Eddie character is relegated to third billing at best.
There's also the problem of genre expectations. Sex Ed opens with raunch and strays into weird raunch (personified by Matt Walsh's perverse and utterly tuned-out school principal). By the time Eddie walks into his classroom, Feder and Kennedy have seeded an American Pie-style sex comedy. In a flash, we realize these kids are A) very young and B) realistically drawn Teens With Problems--not the oversexed, college-bound horn-dogs who make cartoon virginity pacts and put the moves on baked goods.
The movie switches from the kind of film where gratuitous nudity seems inevitable to one where I hoped to God no one would take off their clothes. There is one scene, toward the end, where we see a pair of exposed breasts. They belong to an adult, fortunately, but they're revealed as the punch line to an utterly depressing joke, the result of tagging the spirit-rousing climax from Movie #1 with the sex-comedy silliness of Movie #2.
Sex Ed benefits from solid casting, the glue that holds these disparate elements together. Osment and Izzo are great, and their characters' relationship goes places I hadn't expected at the outset. Ditto for Landon's character, and that of Retta, who plays the wise and sexually adventurous owner of the bar Eddie lives above. In fact, Sex Ed brims with female performers and characters who I wouldn't describe as strong in this context, but who are interesting enough to warrant being fleshed out in Movie #5.
Feder and Kennedy are adept at fooling around in different genres, and I would love to have seen any of the three main movies they hint at here. But skipping the crucial outlining process (which helps organize thoughts and strengthen the thesis before diving into the fun stuff) changes Sex Ed from an essay into a multiple-choice pop quiz.