I have no idea what I’m going to do in a few years.
My oldest son will be 13 years old in a few months, and puberty just hit him like a freight train. His voice is changing, his skin is just on the verge of oiling up, and he seems to grow about two inches between every trip to my house. I’m starting to get a picture of who he’s going to be as a teenager, and it’s strange to see this surly young adult snap into focus every so often, suddenly standing where my sweet baby boy was just a few days ago. His younger brother just hit double digits himself, and he seems determined to catch up with his brother in every way he can, which means they’re both talking about girls now. I’m not sure either one of them would know what to do if a girl they liked even spoke to them, but I’ve decided that, just to be sure, I’m having both of them Scotchgarded from head to toe.
That may seem restrictive, and a bit ridiculous, but I’m sure every parent has similar thoughts at some point, particularly when considering the prospect of their kids taking their first steps into the adult world. That’s what BLOCKERS deals with, and what sounded at first like a misguided idea for a film turns out to be one of the smartest takes on how parents have to deal with these milestones, and how hard it can be to acknowledge that we have indeed raised adults. While the film is being sold primarily as an outrageous raunchy comedy, it actually works best when it focuses on some fairly progressive honesty, and it could serve as a valuable tool for families who have had trouble having conversations they absolutely need to have.
The film opens with video of the first day of school for five-year-old Julie, as her anxious mom Lisa (Leslie Mann) looks on. As soon as Julie meets two other little girls, Lisa’s able to relax, and she ends up meeting Mitchell (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), the parents of the other kids. We watch the kids age via montage, the parents always there on the periphery of things, and then finally catch up with them on the day of their prom. That bookending is no accident, because the film is ultimately not about sex at all (although it is remarkably sex-positive, in a way I’m surprised by considering the film’s premise). Instead, it’s about milestones and how we approach them within that parent-child dynamic. It’s something that is universal, whatever the major milestone, but what makes these particular place-markers so difficult is the value we place on experience, particularly that experience which we partition off as “adult.”
The young cast is just as important to the success of this film as the adults, even if the advertising emphasizes the more familiar grown-up faces. Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) is the daughter of Mitchell (Cena) and Marci (Sarayu Blue), and she’s a winning lead, a smart vivacious kid who is up for a night of experimentation and boundary-breaking. It’s a refreshing character, made even more refreshing because Viswanathan is not the conventional face of teen comedy. Kathryn Newton has been working hard lately in films like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and made a strong showing on HBO’s Big Little Lies, and she plays Leslie Mann’s daughter Julie here. Mann plays Lisa as a smother, unable to give Julie room to breathe even though she sees herself as a cool mom. Part of what they deal with over the course of the film is the difference between saying you see your child as an adult and genuinely treating them like one, and it makes sense of the premise in a way the trailers never quite do.
I keep coming back to the marketing here, and it’s because I’m a little confounded. I’m not sure how you sell this movie any better than they did, but I still feel a massive disconnect between the movie they sold and the one I watched. In some ways, I feel like the raunchy comedy stuff that the campaign is built around is the least interesting material in the film. Some people have a knack for that, and Kay Cannon does not appear to be one of them. Her strengths here come from the stuff she plays more real, the observational stuff, the character connections, and she does a nice job of giving all of the actors room to shine in different ways.
Leslie Mann has unassailable comedy chops and she’s in fine form here. John Cena gets to stretch, and I’m glad to see how few jokes there were about his size or his appearance. He’s the suburban dad who wants to please everyone, a genuinely good guy who is always trying a little bit too hard. Mitchell and Lisa are the ones who hatch the plan to stop their kids from having sex after reading some texts that detail the pact their three kids have made to lose their virginity on prom night. To his credit, Hunter hates the idea as soon as he hears it, and Barinholtz gets to play the widest range out of all of the adults in this one.
He’s great, too. The script’s sharpest observational material is centered around Hunter, who divorced the mother of Sam (Gideon Adlon), the third friend in the group. He’s been ostracized, turned into the villain of the neighborhood by Sam’s mother (June Diane Raphael), and he hasn’t been much of a presence in Sam’s life. One of the things I liked about his character was the way he handles something he suspects about his daughter, but that she hasn’t discussed with him yet. It’s a major part of the film, something that the marketing has avoided completely, but it’s part of why it feels so progressive. Hell, Barinholtz even gets to play some stuff that honestly nails the pain of being the parent who “loses” in a divorce, especially when no one ever talked to you about what went on. Whenever I go back to the neighborhood where my ex-wife still lives with my sons, I am an alien, an invader. Parents I knew for a decade can barely find five words to say to me, because I left. I rejected their world, and their response is clear: I am no longer welcome. Hunter may be the shakiest of the parents in some regards, but when it comes to the way he loves his daughter, he emerges as the film’s hero.
Honestly, the set pieces that are meant to be the big screaming laugh-getters are the moments where it felt like the film started to slow down for me. I wish the film had dug even deeper into the gap between what we say we want for our kids and what we actually want, but as it stands, Blockers is at its best when it is honest, something that is true of family life as well. It may not land every punch it throws, but Blockers has its heart in the right place, and I expect it will resonate with older and younger audiences in very different but equally important ways.
Running time: 102 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic