Usually, it takes several entries into a director’s catalogue before they push things or delve into hard to process topics. In Natalie Morales’s first film, Language Lessons (2021), she explored platonic love amid COVID-19 in a film she both wrote and directed. In her second, Plan B, she explores platonic, romantic, self, and enduring love wrapped up in a narrative package that’s equal parts Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) and Booksmart (2019). The script from Joshua Levy and Prathiksha Srinivasan (both of iZombie and Bollyweird), would be right at home within the pantheon of teen sex comedies, but what elevates Plan B to a higher plane is its intelligence, willingness to make people uncomfortable, and enabling the characters to be funny without humiliating them in the process. It doesn’t hurt that the performances at the front of the film from leads Kuhoo Verma (The Big Sick) and Victoria Moroles (Down a Dark Hall) are absolutely star-making in their ease and grace, capturing all the emotional extremes of the teenage years without ever falling into the tropes audiences expect. You may come to Plan B for the laughs and uplifting message, but I encourage audiences to use it as an opportunity to start conversations that society tells us should be hard.
When Sunny (Verma) is encouraged by her best friend Lupe (Moroles) to throw a house party in order to impress the boy she likes, they expected many things (high school hijinks, drinking, drugs, making out), but the last thing either of them anticipated is that Sunny would lose her virginity or, even more so, that the condom would get stuck, only to fall out the next morning. Terrified of Sunny becoming a teen mom, Sunny and Lupe set out to pick up a Plan B pill (a.k.a. the Morning After pill) from their local pharmacist while Sunny’s mom Rosie (Jolly Abraham) returns from a weekend conference. When the pharmacist won’t issue the medication, however, the two girls set out on a three-hour road trip to Planned Parenthood, fighting the clock and a series of increasingly absurd circumstances along the way.
If art reflects life and vice versa, then it shouldn’t shock anyone who’s paying attention that women always get the short shrift. The film industry contains multitudes of female directors and actors who have been cast aside or forgotten thanks to male domination and a puritan perspective on intersex relations. So if you think films like Blockers (2018); Booksmart; Yes, God, Yes (2019); The Broken Hearts Gallery (2020); and Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020); are part of a new movement of female empowerment films, I’d ask you to consider why you haven’t been aware of these kinds of stories? Did women just stop having sex? Did they stop having desires? Nope. Filmmakers just stopped telling those stories because some very vocal people thought that suppression, not normalization, was the answer to libido control. When you consider that Plato believed that women suffered from hysteria by being childless and that during the late 1800s clitoral stimulation was used medicinally to treat hysteria, maybe the male perspective should start sitting things out for a bit. This seems like a long way to go when reviewing Morales’s Plan B, but the little pieces of the film — throwaway jokes, world-building details, and the like — make the primary narrative as hilarious as it is infuriating. At worst, audiences come away entertained, delighting in teenage hijinks with a fairly typical sex comedy narrative. At best, a conversation is incited about sex positivity, clear communication between kids and their parents, consent, and friendship. As a society, we owe it to the ones we’ve shouted down for centuries to listen to their stories. Why? Because without the patriarchy as it exists today, there would be no story to tell here. In a matriarchal society, the hurdles of the narrative would simply not exist.
Take the character of Kyle played by Mason Cook (I know, a dude in a female-led, female-centric film, but bear with me). Introduced as a social-skills-deficient, close-up-magic-practicing, person of faith, he’s the butt of several jokes that play into the typical high school hierarchy of popular kids. We’ve seen this before in beloved films like Pretty in Pink (1986), except instead of giving Kyle the role of a sexual predator who believes women’s underwear is something to be prized as though not coming from a human being, Kyle is given a storyline that runs through the whole of the film where the audience is shown one aspect of the collateral damage of religion without scientific support. Levy and Srinivasan are far more overt with a rather hilarious sex ed. sequence involving Rachel Dratch’s Ms. Flaucher teaching abstinence in the conflict between antiquated ideas of female’s sexuality as a possession of her husband and personal agency and value. Like Kyle, the sex ed. sequence is meant to play for laughs, but if you really think about what’s going on in the scene (one of few scenes which enables several of the main characters to interact/react with each other), it plays up the subtext of who these characters are, what they value, and what they fear. Interestingly, the presumption is that the sex ed. scene would make a mockery of abstinence, but it actually subverts the expectation by making a mockery of the argument for abstinence as a preventative measure which devalues a women, not abstinence itself. This is one of many surprising aspects of Plan B, as though what Levy, Srinivasan, and Morales want the audience to come away with is the idea that it’s how we treat our partners that creates an opportunity for devaluing someone, not an act itself or how often you engage in that act.
Before you begin to think that the film is just one subtextual lecture, the film takes a tried-and-true method of road trip teen comedies and makes it its own. You can see the influence of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (same producers) without squinting all too hard given the multi-racial leads, the generational cultural conflicts at play between Sunny and Lupe and their respective parents, as well as a journey to a seek out a coveted item (burgers/Plan B pill) that inevitably sends them down a path of one farcical situation after another. With so much familiarity, it requires a deft hand to make it feel fresh. Co-leads, Verma and Moroles radiate confidence, even as their characters are lacking it. More than that, they never feel like stereotypical teens or someone’s manufactured ideal of them. They give off an honesty that makes their performances easy to believe in from the beginning. Their chemistry as scene partners is so fantastic that seeing these two again in college, navigating those waters as a unit, would be most welcome. If you need a piece of evidence as to how deeply I got sucked in by Verma and Moroles’s performances and Morales’s direction: I didn’t realize I’d yelled out in surprise at one particularly hilariously-executed sequence (performance, situation, needle drop) until EoM editor Crystal Davidson texted me from the other side of the house to make sure I was ok. I was more than ok. I was doubled-over with laughter.
Natalie Morales is as versatile as one can get. She’s an actor (Parks and Recreation, The Newsroom), writer (Language Lessons), editor (Lost It (short)), and director with two feature films under her belt released within two months of each other. With just these two projects, she demonstrates that she’s not confined to one form of storytelling, exploring and challenging what audiences expect along the way. Plan B may not be her words, but the execution is entirely her vision, one built on mining the authentic hilarity of life’s situations. Credit where credit is due, this cast, these writers, and this director pull off the kind of joyous, honest, and loving adventure we really need right now.
Available for streaming on Hulu beginning May 28th, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.