A common complaint of sorts about sex in contemporary, mainstream movies is how often it seems to happen with clothes on, and not in an urgent Risky Business sort of way. These are the kinds of weirdest-of-both-worlds encounter where women strip down enough to indulge some cheap titillation, and then sleep, with what I’m told would rep significant discomfort, in their bras, while men keep their boxers on like they’re about to go for a quick dip in an unattended hotel pool. It’s gotten to the point where the most explicit sex in a studio movie tends to happen in comedies, by virtue of what’s become a comic cliché: the quick montage of caricatured acrobatics masquerading as sex positions. (And even there, when the joke is supposed to be the outré cheekiness, the actors still pretty much keep their clothes on.) It’s so difficult to complain about the chasteness of these moments without sounding prurient (and to be clear, I think movie actors of all genders should be naked more often) that I can almost understand the instinct to suggest doing away with them all together.
There’s a moment early in A Nice Girl Like You that very nearly confronts the unsexy, overlit mechanics of rom-com sexuality. Lucy (Lucy Hale) is having sex with her unconvincing live-in boyfriend Jeff (Stephen Friedrich), and her mind is wandering, her inner monologue a mess of self-consciousness and only fleeting pleasure. She is also wearing a full-on pajama top. When she cries out the name of a grocery-list item she forgot rather than her beloved’s, Jeff ceases all operations, briefly complaints about her distracted disinterest in their lovemaking, calls her out for wearing what look like flannel pajamas, and heads to his mancave-y office to do some work, by which he means play video games and jerk off to porn.
It’s uncomfortably easy in this scene to read Jeff as exactly the kind of creep critic (slash blogger slash any given guy playing video games) complaining about the hot girl in the movie not getting naked before retiring to angrily masturbate in an environment constructed with hospitality toward his animal urges closer to front of mind. Lucy even shares a name with the actress who plays her; all that’s missing is some kind of overfamiliar nickname she doesn’t actually use. Even without those overtones, here is a movie scene that acknowledges the vast gulfs between male fantasy, the realities of couplehood, and the cutesy primness of so much movie sex.
Then Lucy enters Jeff’s lair, finds porn on his laptop, and the movie whisks itself back in time. More accurately, the movie lurches around time periods, collecting bits and pieces of ’80s sex comedy, early 2000s American Pie knockoffs, ’90s indie movies getting off on their own mild rawness, old health videos, and whenever ABC Family transformed into Freeform—though here we veer into an alternate reality where somehow a Freeform Original lets its characters say “cock.” The inciting incident, as the filmmakers’ screenwriting manuals must have said, is Lucy’s aghast reaction to Jeff’s consumption of pornography: “Since when are you a porn person?” she asks indignantly, with inexplicably wounded pride. Jeff’s crack that amounts to “since dudes” does not soothe her, seemingly less because of its staleness than her extreme distaste for the exploitation and cruelty involved in the pornographic arts, a culture she assumed her videogame-loving nerd-bro boyfriend simply opted out of.
Now may be a good time to point out that Lucy—the character—is meant to be a Harvard graduate.
I know, I know: Jared Kushner graduated from Harvard, and seems incapable of carrying his own dish to the sink. But Lucy in no way resembles a murderous boy-doll who has been trapped in mansion walls for years. She’s supposed to be an adult, professional woman, with the job of violinist, because Harvard graduates do smart stuff, like play the violin, and make lists.
That is how Lucy handles the abrupt break-up resulting from an ill-advised me-or-pr0n ultimatum to Jeff: She makes a list. Lists, amirite? Women be listin’? Yes? No? Caught between the forgotten hits of the ’80s, ’90s, and today, who’s to say? But the point is, Lucy makes a list designed to prove to herself that she is not a sex-negative prude, but a strong, independent, open-minded woman who is not, as Jeff says, “pornophobic.” This descent into the dark heart of human sexuality includes such sex-adjacent activities as visiting a strip club, reading erotic literature (or “cliterature,” as her sex-savvy friend puts it—what portmanteaus will those millennials think of next?!), talking vaguely about masturbation, and visiting a sex expert (what if they called this a… “sexualitypert”? Am I doing this right?). She also vows to watch a requisite number of “porn films” (this is what a Harvard degree in this movie buys you: a phrase that sounds dumber than “pornos”), and also—in a separate item—to check out this internet pornography everyone has been buzzing about. Why, it’s the hottest sex trend since cliterature!
Here is my own list, for your edification, of things that do not appear on Lucy’s:
–spend even five minutes on Pornhub
–talk to a sex worker rather than applying to work as one in a scene that takes place largely offscreen, as if to assure us that only the fictional characters’ time will be utterly wasted
–seem remotely comfortable with the idea of being naked for any reason
–positions other than missionary
–like literally any at all
To be fair, A Nice Girl Like You is based on a memoir called Pornology, by a writer who attended Harvard (well, for grad school), so it’s entirely possible Lucy is working from the real-life list of an extremely boring dork or, worse, an aspiring screenwriter.
While Lucy is plowing through a series of adventures that would barely pass muster as clickbait at Redbook, she follows the time-honored romantic formula of repeatedly bumping into a handsome man. Grant (Leonidas Gulaptis) catches her in a variety of embarrassing positions (though, again: pretty much just missionary), and they go on some dates. The best thing about A Nice Girl Like You is that it seems blissfully unaware that movies usually have conflicts, not just brief and reasonable misunderstandings, so it barely goes through the motions of melodrama that it would be evidently ill-quipped to handle. Lucy thinks she’s doing good with her list, then she’s not so sure, then she’s good with it again. Meanwhile, Lucy thinks Grant likes her (correctly); intuits that something has driven him away (correctly); then realizes that he is a good guy after all (correctly). Occasionally, someone gets embarrassed. I will pointlessly withhold revealing whether the couple lives happily ever after, in part because I can’t remember. (I mean, they do, but the specifics are eluding me.)
A Nice Girl Like You is directed the Riedell Brothers, whose reputation does not proceed them, but apparently has something to do with YouTubers. It is with no great awe to the star power of Lucy Hale that I say I am flabbergasted that they convinced her to appear in this film, which has all of the hallmarks of a demo except being impressive in any way. The soundtrack is larded with extremely recognizable and popular songs, often used repeatedly in other movies, only here they’re all off-brand soundalike covers, as if the filmmakers simultaneously can’t picture their movie not including twelve crucial seconds of “Be My Baby” as part of a scene transition yet aren’t married to actually using the original recording. There’s a bit of wedding-related scatological slapstick in an early scene that’s staged in a sudden, embarrassed burst. There’s a scene—a sit-down conversation, mind you—that looks suspiciously like it was shot in the rain not for any thematic, visual, or plot-related reason, but because it was raining when they shot it. Most of these minor glitches fall under the heading of “making do,” but the Riedell Brothers aren’t hinting at the ingenuity of a scrappy low-budget film. They’re displaying the misplaced confidence of a Freeform Original whose budget was slashed at the eleventh hour, leaving only poor semi-famous Lucy Hale to flail around making acting faces as she navigates PG-13 Adult Situations with occasional and awkward R-rated dialogue.
Hale may not be a great actress, but she’s certainly good enough to elicit some sympathy as she struggles with this simplistic yet somehow also impossible construct of a character, who never remotely feels like a real person despite, again, having the same name as the person playing her. Admittedly, the movie does a great job of inhabiting Lucy’s point of view: Like its lead character, it wants to be curious about sexuality but absolutely isn’t, resulting in a movie that flits around the edges of sex, displaying signifiers—underwear! Vibrators! Clothed strippers!—like centerfolds, while demurely avoiding the appearance of anyone actually having an orgasm. It’s the kind of movie happy to say “cliterature” but too squeamish to say “clit.”
Look, I get how obnoxious I sound. It’s easy to degrade some poor, dumb, innocent movie for its timid sexuality, adopting the position of a pansexual libertine who wishes more romantic comedies were like Shortbus. I assure you, this is not my position. (Pun intended, in an attempt to make the imagined target audience for A Nice Girl Like You laugh very, very hard.) But why make a movie about porn just to simulate the feeling that everyone involved with it has learned about porn primarily from the dubious memoir Pornology? With streaming movies liberated from the arcane rating systems and the insistence that they must be seen in a theater to be legitimate entertainment, the point of a sex comedy that essentially comes with a pre-written defense about why it should never be considered for the NC-17 entirely eludes me. There’s an old, hacky bad-movie dunk that compares whatever film in question to a porn movie with the nudity and sex cut out. A Nice Girl Like You is like a softcore movie with the nudity, sex, and movie cut out.