Dir. Will Gluck
(2010, PG-13, 92 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

I grew up on a pop-cultural diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Clueless, and Felicity, among others. Those were my touchstones when I was entering adolescence. Kids these days have different touchstones: Gossip Girl, Skins, Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant. On the ABC Family network, a very good show about college, Greek, floundered in the ratings while more scandalous young’uns whoop it up on Pretty Little Liars to quadruple the audience. Young viewers these days, when they’re not choosing between Team Broody-Sparkle and Team Shirtless-Bowflex, are less interested in seeing themselves on screen than they are in vicariously living out their Charlie Sheen meltdowns before they’re old enough to vote.

But every few years there comes a film that gives us hope for American teenagers. Mean Girls was one. Juno was another. They have in common the prevailing vision of smart, distinctive screenwriters: Tina Fey and Diablo Cody, respectively. Fey was already an established name when Mean Girls was released in 2004, but Cody’s Oscar-winning Juno script was her feature debut, and so is Bert V. Royal’s script for Easy A. Royal is 33-years-old, perhaps still young enough to remember having teenage peers who didn’t need to be pandered to.

Patricia Clarkson, as Rosemary

Emma Stone stars in a performance distinguished by its intelligence. She plays Olive, a California high school student full of pop-culture references, as all movie teens are required to be, but hers range from John Hughes to Mark Twain. As the result of a white lie overheard by the school’s Puritanical busybody, Marianne (Amanda Bynes), a rumor spreads that Olive has had sex and she develops a reputation as a slut. At first she tries to correct the mistake, but the rumor mill is way ahead of her, powered by technology that transmits misinformation at the speed of light. (In Egypt, Facebook helped overthrow a dictator, but I think this is probably its more common use.) But soon, Olive decides just to go with it; before, no one knew who she was, and now she turns heads. There are worse ways to get through high school.

What’s terrific about Easy A, like Mean Girls, is how in its lighthearted way it’s really all about identity politics. Olive, in letting the lie work for her, figures out a concept that grown-up publicists, politicians, and advertisers spend their careers trying to master: perception is reality. And in the trial-by-fire proving ground of high school, knowing that is half the battle.

Is Olive’s sexpot routine any less a put-on than Marianne’s devout Christian zealotry? She and her other Jesus-loving friends, eagerly persecuting their now-scandalous classmate, clearly skipped that part in the Bible about Mary Magdalene, but she’s found a kind of person to be, a philosophy to believe in, and a group of people who share it. Olive, too, has found a role that works for her; it’s not remotely true, but Twitter doesn’t know the difference.

Problems begin when others try to hitch a ride on Olive’s lie. The first is Brandon (Dan Byrd), who has a familiar identity crisis of his own: he’s gay and bullied and wants to pass as straight so he can get through high school in one piece. And then other outcasts come out of the woodwork hoping to turn her fictional exploits into real gossip for their benefit. It works – for them. Turns out boys have more to gain from perceived promiscuity than girls.

Olive’s parents are played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci less like parents than like the cool RAs who let you smoke pot in your dorm. They’re written by Royal as if they’re the best parents in the world, but here I think he miscalculates a bit, because they’re so laid-back that they cross a line into uncomfortable territory. Show of hands: how many of you would like to hear about the sexual positions your mother could get into when she was your age? That they’re played by Clarkson and Tucci is their saving grace; the actors convey warmth even during conversations they really shouldn’t be having with their daughter.

The story takes a more serious turn in the second half, but not too serious. It’s never heavy-handed about its life lessons, thanks in large part to Stone, who is sympathetic without being maudlin when Olive’s lies come back to haunt her. The film is directed by Will Gluck, whose only previous directing credit is the generally hated horny-boys-and-cheerleaders comedy Fired Up! His style is very conventional, but he has a good sense of tone and is clever about modern ostracism. Technology has come a long way since the Hester Prynne days, but society hasn’t come quite as far.