Warning: This article contains spoilers.
Early on in Sex Appeal, American High’s newest movie on Hulu, protagonist and high school senior Avery Hansen-White (Mika Abdalla) tells her mom, “I fed my A.I. all these teen sex comedies, but all those were just like these horny boys humping pie.”
The sentiment captures Avery’s frustration with her app’s development, which she is creating in the effort to win Stemcon, a prestigious competition that has the potential to set her up for a successful lifelong career. But more than that, it highlights the lack of authentic movie portrayals about a teen girl’s first time having sex.
Written by Taet Hanyok and directed by Talia Osteen, Sex Appeal follows Avery as she works to develop an app that solves a personal problem. Because she and her long-distance boyfriend and fellow Stemcon competitor, Casper (Mason Versaw), decide to have sex for the first time at the convention, Avery decides she’ll develop an app that will guarantee a successful sexual experience.
“Avery is just very type-A, very driven,” Abdalla tella LA Confidential. “She's just really socially-disconnected from the world around her because she's so focused on these academic and on-paper achievements. And while she does make some mistakes, I do think that Avery is a good friend at the end of it.”
Through Avery’s quest, Sex Appeal lays the breadcrumbs of its cinematic predecessors, such as the previosuly alluded to American Pie. It pinpoints pop culture’s tendency to platform male, cishet experiences— raunchy stories drenched in male ego.
But here we don’t have a pair of teen-boy best friends set on losing their virginity before heading off to college. Instead, connected in spirit to recent movies like Booksmart and Plan B (also from American High), Avery is unashamed— scientifically enthusiastic, really— in her mission to conquer her sexuality.
In addition to gathering information (such as pop culture anecdotes and pieces of wisdom from fellow students), Avery knows proper research requires physical experimentation, which leads her to employing longtime friend Larson (Jake Short) as a test subject. She’s all in on trying to learn the mechanics, but must come to realize that love and sex are an intermingling mess.
“Larson is very selfless,” Short explains. “My character was sort of the anti-character to [Avery,] trying to continuously break down our walls.”
“[He’s] a young man who is genuinely interested in a woman’s journey rather than just taking her pants off, which is really cool,” he later adds.
Propelled by perfectionism, Avery enlists the help of anyone that crosses her path, including her two moms, Ma Deb (Margaret Cho) and Mama Suze (Fortune Feimster), and Kim (Rebecca Henderson), Ma Deb’s partner. Her parents may be separated, but they just happen to live next door to one another.
Cho explains that Ma Deb and Mama Suze are trying to get Avery to understand sex from a sex-positive perspective. However, as queer women, they themsleves are still trying to figure out how to best help their straight daughter. Above everything, it's all about support.
“It’s an unconditional understanding that becomes embarrassing, which I think is really authentic and funny,” Cho says. “The awkwardness of trying to become an adult with witnesses, it’s so embarrassing and weird.”
Cho praises Sex Appeal for being a feminist coming-of-age movie. Illustrating her point, Cho points to the various fantasy sequences. Throughout Avery’s “experiments” with Larson, the movie presents a more illustrative take on sex. For example, Avery’s first orgasm is presented as a vibrant waterslide-synchronized swimming sequence.
“When we see sex on screen, it’s just weird humping and thrusting,” Cho says. “I think that the film actually gets much more accurate in its description and portrayal. These surreal sequences of swimming and dancing and all this stuff, it really is kind of what happens within your own sensory experience…There's so much more to sexuality than what we can see, so it's better to couch it in metaphor.”
Still, Sex Appeal remains very much rooted in reality. When it comes time for Avery to have sex with her boyfriend, there is no fantasy sequence. She and Casper use her Sex Appeal app for guidance. The Spock-narrated tool takes the couple step by step, but to no success. The experience is uncomfortable. Mid-presentation the next day, she finally accepts that her app doesn’t work and withdraws from the competition.
Perhaps an even bigger blow to Avery’s ego is when she admits to Larson that she has feelings for him. It’s something he admits to her before Stemcon, but Avery is too late. The two friends don’t have a happily ever after, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get a happy ending. As Cho puts it, Larson isn’t Avery’s Prince Charming. He may be her best friend, but he doesn’t need to end up as the love of her life.
“Life doesn’t just end when the credits roll,” Cho says.
In the end, Avery is still a genius headed off to MIT. Her future is bright even though the final months of high school throw her orderly life into a complete tailspin. However, all the mess has truly prepared her for adulthood more than any esteemed accolade ever could.
“I just learned that sometimes you have to fail to grow,” Avery says toward the end of the movie. In this case she’s talking to a teacher about accepting her below A-plus grade on a paper, but we know she’s referring to so much more.
“I hope that people laugh and have a good time and don't take it too seriously,” Abdalla says. “I [also] hope that, specifically, young women take away from it that you can be in charge of your own sexual experiences whenever you want them to happen and whoever you want them to happen with. I think that [Sex Appeal] makes a really good point that you can get advice from other people, you can talk to your parents if you want, you can talk to your friends if you want, but everyone's preferences and morals are for themselves…You also have to be very cognizant and very good at checking in with yourself and making sure that what you're doing feels good to you and makes you happy.”
Sex Appeal is now streaming on Hulu.
Photography by: Jade Brennan/Hulu