Hulu's Sex Appeal Movie Review

While developing an app for maximizing successful sexual encounters, the teen protagonist of the Hulu original movie Sex Appeal watches numerous teen sex comedies like the one she's starring in, and yet somehow she fails to discern the predictable trajectory of a "friends with benefits" relationship. High school senior Avery Hansen-White (Mika Abdalla) is meant to be a genius, but she misinterprets key data for the science project that's consuming her life.

Avery is developing this app for STEMCON, an annual competition for high schoolers studying science, technology, engineering, and/or math. After winning the previous year's competition, she's feeling pressured to live up to her legacy, although it's never clear what's on the line other than a trophy and bragging rights. As she mentions at the beginning of her incessant narration, Avery has already been admitted to MIT on a full scholarship. Her academic future is secure. She just really cares about this Shark Tank-style contest.

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She also really cares about making things work with her STEMCON boyfriend Casper (Mason Versaw), with whom she's been carrying on a long-distance relationship for the past year. Casper tells Avery he's ready to take things to the next level, and they should have sex when they see each other at STEMCON. Avery, of course, excels in every class and school activity but is terrified that she won't know what she's doing when it's time to have sex with Casper. Conveniently, this year's STEMCON challenge involves designing an app that solves a problem in the designer's life. Avery realizes that all she needs to do is design an app to help her "get good at sex," as she writes in her notes, and both her STEMCON goals will be achieved.

Avery's app -- which she naturally calls Sex Appeal -- is about as realistic as the program that the main characters in Weird Science use to conjure up their ideal woman. There's nothing in Sex Appeal that even remotely relates to the real-world efforts of female students in the sciences. Avery is a "nerd" in the fake Hollywood sense, with impeccable fashion sense and a set of superficial references to Star Trek. She names artificial intelligence in her app Spock, and she emphasizes the idea that she can maximize her sexual experience via logic.

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She loads the AI with internet porn, teen rom-coms, and questionable feedback from her fellow students, but it comes up short. Her peers idolize the mature and experience Danica McCollum (Paris Jackson), who suggests that Avery find someone to practice her moves with before the big night with Casper. So Avery recruits her best friend Larson (Jake Short), who is obviously in love with her, to be her sexperiment partner. Despite Larson's previous efforts to become more than friends, Avery is confident that fooling around with him will lead to no unintended consequences. "Love and sex are entirely different entities," she says with the hubris of a character who is about to learn the exact opposite of that assertion. Avery and Larson start going through her very scientific list of sexual activities, reserving intercourse for Avery to experience for the first time with Casper. They have fun, and to the shock of no one except Avery, they start to fall in love.

The predictability of Sex Appeal isn't necessarily a problem, since part of the charm of a teen rom-com is its comforting familiarity. But Sex Appeal brings nothing new to the well-worn genre, and the overconfident, vaguely condescending Avery is hard to root for throughout the film. Larson is more likable, but he's also a bland doormat who barely asserts himself. The supporting characters are essentially nonexistent -- neither Avery nor Larson seems to have a friend aside from each other, and even Jackson's amusingly cynical Danica only shows up in a couple of scenes.

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Director Talia Osteen and writer Tate Hanyok throw in plenty of crude but not clever jokes, and they represent each of Avery and Larson's sexual encounters via colorful fantasy sequences. There's a Busby Berkeley-style synchronized-swimming dance number, a spaceship launch, and an underground repair expedition, all clumsily standing in for more explicit offscreen events. Osteen doesn't have enough resources to stage these sequences creatively or elaborately, so they come across as chintzy placeholders for what the teen-oriented movie can't show.

Various reliable comedy veterans show up in the adult roles, including Fortune Feimster and Margaret Cho as Avery's divorced but still friendly moms to give her well-meaning but unhelpful advice. The adult performers generate a handful of chuckles, but most of Sex Appeal's comedy is weak. The filmmakers add a slight swerve to the love story between Avery and Larson, but instead of subverting the rom-com formula, it makes the final act anticlimactic.

Sex Appeal premieres Friday, January 14 on Hulu.

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Josh Bell (371 Articles Published)

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, Inverse, Film Racket, Crooked Marquee and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year. Follow him on Twitter at @signalbleed and on Facebook at Josh Bell Hates Everything.

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