“This is a mixed bag of a film if I ever saw one, immensely brought down, but not entirely corrupted, by its potty-mouth tendencies and graciously saved by an effective performance by its leading actor.”
Isaac Feder’s Sex Ed is a film that would work so much better if it didn’t find itself giggling under its breath at characters engaging in lewd sex or preteens using terms like “squirter” and “double penetration.” The film is clearly using juvenile sex humor as a way to mask the loftier themes of the importance of sexual education in schools and ones rampant desire to lose his or her virginity as soon as possible. In turn, these distractions create a film that is brought down by its own dirty-mindedness. If Sex Ed had fully realized its themes and stopped trying to get us to laugh at the fact that preteens can be sexually curious in the most brazen ways, we might actually have a film that poses conversation without such vulgar interjections.
Sex Ed, however, features a wonderful and earnest performance by Haley Joel Osment, best known for his role as the child who saw dead people in The Sixth Sense, playing an equally-earnest character by the name of Ed Cole. Ed Cole is your archetypal pudgy doofus who means well but is having difficultly in getting his life where he wants it. He has an education major but failed to realize how competitive the teaching market is, and has settled for working the late shift at a local bagel shop. Ed’s roommate is JT (Glen Powell), who is often seen in compromising positions with his lover Trish (Abby Elliot), who tries to be his “yes man” and his motivator, when, in reality, he even recognizes Ed is just about hopeless in his nice guy state, never having a steady girlfriend and relying on an unsupported claim of sleeping with a Canadian woman who became a model.
Ed needs a change in his life and he decides to venture out to a job matching facility where he is granted an after school program manger at an inner-city school in a predominately-Cuban neighborhood. Despite being the fish out of water in the neighborhood, Ed ambitiously creates lesson plans involving teenage sexuality and adolescent health issues, giving students insight into their bodies so that dangerous experimentation and false ideas perpetuated by the internet won’t be the sole sources for their sexual curiosities. His program is criticized by one of the student’s fathers, a Reverend, who believes that sex should be discussed in the privacy of the home and not with a teacher. This is an understandable, knee-jerk reaction, but Ed knows that time is fleeting and parents don’t always have the time to sit down with their children for an indeterminate amount of time, which is where he comes in to help.
Osment is so warm and comfortable in playing Ed, almost to the point where one can assume some sort of character empathy is present. After showing some sort of screen presence in Kevin Smith’s Tusk, Osment finds a film with a character he can totally sink into and play with full conviction. Had the character of Ed Cole been played by a lesser actor, or simply been a character written to be the butt of a screenwriter’s jokes, the insincerity of the entire project would’ve bled through like Sharpie on tissue paper and it would’ve been a loathsome ordeal.
However, the glaring issue with Sex Ed, as I stated, is with Bill Kennedy’s writing, which is not consistently funny. Certain zingers provoke smiles, but most provoke nothing but groans as the quips used are nothing but screenwriting tactics used in hopes the audience will not get bored. This contrasts with Osment’s warmth in such a way that makes the film veer off into Adam Sandler territory, where we’re so close to laughing at the character rather than with the character, and I found that hard to do, with Osment and his character Ed being so genial and fun (and, okay, relatable). The fact that Sex Ed has bold things to say about the current role teachers, the value of sexual education, and incredible pressure we put on virgins to have sex and tries to soften their impact by using dirty words is a real slap in the face to anyone hoping for a more thoughtful piece of work.
I do give Kennedy and director Isaac Feder credit for not softening or cheapening the ending in the way American Pie screwed up its ending. Sex Ed is so close to going off the deep end at its conclusion so much so, I was preparing to write and publish a very different review. Thankfully, Kennedy maintains the composure he used to craft the themes of the film and structures an ending that nicely adheres and cements the film’s underlying messages. This is a mixed bag of a film if I ever saw one, immensely brought down, but not entirely corrupted, by its potty-mouth tendencies and graciously saved by an effective performance by its leading actor.