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Film Review: In “Sex Appeal,” The Positive Can’t Quite Defeat the Negative

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | January 13th, 2022

Film poster: “Sex Appeal”

Sex Appeal (Talia Osteen, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.

Given the repression of years past, there is nothing wrong with a sex-positive film. After all, it’s when we don’t talk about issues that problems emerge, whether in relationships or even just with our own selves. And in Sex Appeal, director Talia Osteen’s narrative-feature debut, there is quite a lot of frank discussion of bodies, sex, orgasms, and so much more.

Working from a script by Tate Hanyok (Love and Baseball)—who also plays a small role as a math teacher—Osteen guides her young actors through the often-sticky wicket of erotic exploration. That’s all to the good (though this middle-aged man feels a bit deviant writing that). Unfortunately, clever jokes and mise-en-scène aside, the premise also traffics in tired tropes about the cluelessness of overachievers, even as it concludes with a heartfelt message that redeems some of its faults. Mixed cinematic bag though it may be, Sex Appeal still has something to (occasionally) offer and has moments of genuine fun.

l-r: Tate Hanyok and Mika Abdalla in SEX APPEAL @Brett Roedel/Hulu

Mika Abdalla (Netflix’s Project Mc² series) stars (and narrates) as Avery, a high-school senior who’s had her eye on a high-flying career in science since earliest childhood. The film starts at the annual “Stemcon,” a math/science/engineering competition she won the previous year. From what we can see of her expression and hear in the voiceover, this time it has not gone well. Flashback 33 days, to where her problems began.

For it was then that the annual Stemcon challenge was announced, asking students to create an app that would solve a problem in their personal life. Except that Avery doesn’t have one, as her erstwhile best friend, Larson (Jake Short, This Is the Year) conveniently reminds her. For you see, this is yet another tale of a supersmart kid whose brilliance makes them terrible at the practical side of things.

l-r: Mika Abdalla and Jake Short in SEX APPEAL @Jade Brennan/Hulu

Another wrinkle comes in the form of Avery’s long-distance boyfriend, Casper (Mason Versaw, tick, tick…BOOM!), also a Stemcon participant, who declares over video chat that he will be “DTF” at the event. Oh, no! But Avery’s never even kissed a boy! What to do? Though her three (count ‘em, three) lesbian moms are willing to help explain things, she needs some actual practice. All of which gives her the idea to design her app (“Sex App/eal”) as a program to teach young virgins how to have “good sex.” If that sounds dumb, it is, but every once in a while, also mildly humorous.

Meanwhile, there is the question of that practice, for which Avery enlists Larson, once her partner in all things (before, at 14, he made a move on her). Though confused, he’s willing, and they go from kissing to, well, other stuff. Along the way, they discuss whether love and sex need go hand in hand … or not. As silly as much of this may be, at least there are a few genuine surprises as far as that last topic goes.

l-r: Rebecca Henderson, Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster in SEX APPEAL @Jade Brennan/Hulu

Osteen enlivens the proceedings with some well-imagined flights of fancy, cutting away from actual sex to something less graphic but far more inventive than the usual. Still, after a few times, we get the picture, and this technique thereafter proves less interesting. The cast is always game, including the trio of maternal figures—Margaret Cho (Faith Based), Fortune Feimster (Chick Fight) and Rebecca Henderson (Werewolves Within)—and there is a comfortable rapport between all of them that is one of the best aspects of the movie. Ultimately, however, that which works can’t quite overcome that which doesn’t. Sex Appeal promotes positive values, but the negatives squeak out a win at the end.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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