One of the best pieces of advice on film criticism that I’ve received is to start a review with whatever element of a movie most rouses you. I find myself happily wracked with indecision as I dissect the new comedy Blockers, about three parents (played by Leslie Mann, John Cena, and Ike Barinholtz) who attempt to stop their 12th-grade daughters from losing their virginities on prom night. Directed by Kay Cannon (best known for penning the Pitch Perfect movies), Blockers is about as funny and heartfelt as studio comedies get (which isn’t meant as a backhanded compliment), while smart and insightful enough to double as a guide to raising teenage girls. An exuberant showcase for its adult stars—comic geniuses all—the raunchfest is a sharp analysis of how casual sexism can seep into the best of intentions as well as the rare parenting satire that I, a nonparent, felt invested in. In short, there are too many great things about Blockers to choose just one.
Let’s start with the fact each of the parents is developed enough to have a distinct reason for obstructing his or her daughter’s nascent sexual experimentation, just as each girl has her own motivation for wanting to become sexually active. Chicago single mom Lisa (Mann) fears that her sheltered, mini-me daughter Julie (Kathryn Newton)—practically a Disney princess with her bouncy, blond mane and her hopes that her first time with her boyfriend will be “special” and “perfect”—will get too attached to her UCLA-bound boyfriend. Brawny family man Mitchell (Cena) objects to sporty, laid-back Kayla (Aussie newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan) flicking away her V-card before college on a more traditional basis: The world is divided into sexy females (like his wife, played by Sarayu Blue) and nonsexy females, and his would-be Venn diagram of those two groups consists of two discrete circles. Town pariah Hunter (Barinholtz, excelling as always as the grotesque outcast but more relatable here) intuits that his shy daughter Sam (Gideon Adlon, daughter of Pamela) is a lesbian and doesn’t want her to do anything with her date that she’s not interested in. Afraid of losing her best friends, closeted Sam signs on for their decidedly hetero #SexPact2018 despite her crush on a female classmate (Ramona Young).
In other words, there’s a lot going on in Blockers. But the screenplay, by Brian and Jim Kehoe, is built sturdily enough to feel substantial, rather than cluttered. As the parents chase their children from home to prom to various after-parties, they discover that they didn’t know their daughters as well as they’d thought, prompting self-reflection about why the girls kept so many secrets from them in the first place. Those epiphanies are hard-earned: Cena’s best scenes take place with his lower half bare, and not just because his wrestler’s thighs would give a Renaissance marble-statue body dysmorphia. His character’s self-sacrificial willingness to grit his teeth through the kookiest high jinks that suburbia has to offer makes his stodgy values at least those of a consistently decent guy.
Mitchell and Lisa judge Hunter for the affair that got him kicked out of his daughter’s life, as well as his subsequent absenteeism. All the parents increase in depth, but the most surprising revelations flesh out Hunter, whose status as a deadbeat dad ironically makes him the most understanding of what the girls are going through. (He’s also the most vocal about empowering girls by trusting them—the film’s message in a nutshell—though he eventually falls prey to Mitchell and Lisa’s paranoia.) The scenes in which the trio decode their teens’ emoji-heavy text chains, aided by Hunter’s half familiarity with what trees and snowflakes mean, are hilarious for sending up Lisa and Mitchell’s willful naïveté about what their kids are up to. (Mitchell would prefer to think that texting an eggplant is part of sharing Italian recipes.)
Blockers’ generosity of spirit extends to the girls. The basis of their friendship isn’t overtly defined, but their connection is thoroughly convincing nonetheless. For most of the night, they treat their dates like the accessories that they are. More than anything else, sex is almost a bonding exercise—even a chance to do something nice for your bestie. The night ends on a sex-positive but not sex-obsessed note, with each of the girls doing what makes the most sense to them.
Naturally, the best jokes are the ones we don’t expect—like the two outlandish objects to which penises get compared—and the ones that happen when we’re least expecting them. (An electrocution scene late in the movie exemplifies Mann’s underrated knack for physical comedy.) But the high caliber of most of the humor can be a double-edged sword, in that the shoddiness of the cheaper gags really stick out. A projectile-vomiting sequence feels like it’s performed out of a sense of obligation, and as long as I’m nitpicking, there’s something a bit regressive about naming a movie about female sexual agency after the slang term cockblockers (to prevent any confusion, a euphemistic rooster features on the posters), as if it’s not entirely the girls in this movie who initiate sex. It’s too bad we still largely lack the language for women and girls’ sexual desires, but at least with a movie like Blockers, the culture is finally catching up.