In Beth Schacter’s remarkably assured directorial debut, a high school senior must choose between her lifelong best friends (and sexual partners) and a callow new love interest who jealously demands emotional exclusivity. With Amber Tamblyn as its star and teen group sex as its subject matter, R-rated pic seems destined for controversy despite, or perhaps because of, its wholly unsensationalistic, supremely lucid approach to adolescent sexual options. Neither gross-out puberty comedy nor teenage angstfest, sprightly, fascinating coming-of-ager may have to rely on controversy to attract domestic distribution.
Three teen boys and three teen girls, friends since grade school, form a close-knit communal unit — casually lying around like a single organism with multiple interlocking bodies, voices and experiences. They have developed certain collective rituals over the years: Each has a box to which subjectively meaningful objects are either added or subtracted according to specific rules, and Saturday nights are devoted to tender, playful free-form sex. Composed of highly intelligent teens on the brink of college, the circle seems unlikely to survive beyond high school.
Despite the internal cohesiveness and deep affection that characterize this band of outsiders, it is immedi-ately obvious that their defiance has been shaped by their opposition to their surroundings and their surroundings’ opposition to them. Director Schacter wonderfully delineates the witches’ brew of incomprehension, envy, disgust and yearning on either side of the us-them divide.
Schacter concentrates most of the film’s attention on two female figures: Wendy (Tamblyn), the group’s caring den mother, mediator and lynchpin, and Billie (Kelli Garner of “Thumbsucker,” in an astoundingly commanding perf), the violently defensive leader of the pack, whose at-tachment to Wendy goes far beyond group allegiance.
When Wendy falls for her next-door neighbor Sean (Ashton Holmes, “A History of Violence”), she winds up needlessly caught between two obsessive, mutually exclusive loves.
Sean, new in town, also introduces the hypocrisy of the “normal” kids (in Wendy’s words, today’s mainstream teenage culture consists “of disposable girlfriends, of blowjobs for bracelets”) by attending a typical weekend party where stripper poles and drunken promiscuity reign. At first chivalrously defensive of Wendy’s lifestyle, Sean quickly reverts to immature conservatism, demanding not only that she never see her friends again, but that she denounce the clique in atonement for her sexual sins.
Schacter, however, has no interest in delivering moralistic judgments. Her teens navigate waters full of dangerous shoals not because they are sexually active, but because all choices entail risks that must be negotiated.
Pointedly, it is Sean, not Schacter, who melodramatically defines the practice of monogamous group marriage as “a tragedy waiting to happen.” Unfortunately, in these puritanical days, moral ambivalence earns a film an R rating faster than any amount of bloodletting violence or “immoral” sex, even in the absence of explicit nudity.
“Normal,” no masterpiece, lacks the briskness and almost magical simultaneity of word and image seen in, say, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” While Schacter surely manages to translate her script to the screen with a minimum of distortion, her nuanced control of character far surpasses her visual acumen and overall mastery of tone. One comic subplot involving Wendy’s brother (Daryl Sabara, “Spy Kids”) feels labored. Admittedly, though, in a pic so strongly character-driven, such quibbles seem minor.
Tech credits are pro.