A painfully awkward sexual encounter. An impromptu road trip. A tested friendship. No, the outlines of Natalie Morales' "Plan B" aren't revolutionary. This is the tried and true framework of the high-school comedy. But teen comedies, almost as a rule, are made by their leads. And with Kuhoo Verma and Victoria Moroles, "Plan B" is overwhelmingly a winner.
Morales' film seems destined to be compared to Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart," which arrived in theaters almost exactly two years ago. Both are helmed with a veteran filmmaker's sense of timing by actors-turned-first-time-directors. (Morales has been a familiar face in film and TV for the past 15 years.) Both feature a pair of breakthrough performances. And both bring a funny, feminist spin to a traditionally boyish and often boorish movie genre.
But it surprised me watching "Plan B" just how much it's its own thing. It has a comic rhythm and perspective of its own. And while most teen comedies have gone for packed movie theaters, "Plan B" — more scruffily indie, more all-the-way R-rated — is only streaming, available on Hulu. So it's fitting that the characters of "Plan B" offer us a new phrase in the streaming lexicon that can sit alongside "Netflix and chill": "Disney-plus and thrust."
Verma, who had a small role in "The Big Sick," stars as Sunny, the high-achieving, low-self-esteem daughter of demanding Indian American parents. Her best friend Lupe (Moroles, from MTV's "Teen Wolf" and the Disney Channel's "Liv and Maddie") is more self-possessed than most adults. But her brash style and two-tone hair are regularly ridiculed by her more conservative father. Both Sunny and Lupe are outsiders in small-town South Dakota, where their ethnicities are only foggily understood. Mostly, they shrug it off. When one boy, intending a compliment, tells "Verma" she's "got that whole Princess Jasmine thing going," she sheepishly notes that it's the wrong ethnic group, but "it's kind of the closest princess we've got so I'll take it."
The sharp-witted script, by Prathi Srinivasan and Joshua Levy, is best in the movie's first half, set largely around high school and, as the genre's laws decree, at a party thrown by Sunny when her parents are away. If you think you've seen enough Sex Ed scenes by now, you'll want to make an exception for one with Rachel Dratch as an in-over-her-head teacher, helpless when her students take a car metaphor for virginity and run with it. The party scene, too, has its tropes (a poorly concocted punch) and its unique touches. Sunny, feeling spurned by her crush (played by Michael Provost), ends up in the bathroom instead with Kyle (Mason Cook), a sincere kid into both magic and Jesus — and to Sunny about the most regrettable person in South Dakota to lose her virginity to.
The next morning, panic sets in and Sunny needs a morning-after pill. Yet when Lupe (speaking for the too-ashamed Sunny) asks the pharmacist (Jay Chandrasekhar, the comedy director-actor of "Super Troopers"), he declines on the basis of the state's "conscience clause," which gives pharmacists a right of refusal due to religious beliefs.
Here, "Plan B" doesn't turn sober, by any means. There are still scenes to come involving a drug-dealer's pierced penis, an accidental dose of speed and a stolen car. But the film's inherent set up is, like the comic equivalent to "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," a poignant commentary on the hurdles to abortion. Sunny and Lupe drive Sunny's mom's Honda minivan to a Planned Parenthood in Rapid City, a three-hour trip that turns longer and more surreal than most Dakota drives. Here, "Plan B" sometimes drifts off course, but all of their adventures are a reminder why the typical conquests of the teen comedy are more complicated for young women.
But "Plan B" never turns didactic. Pointed as the message of "Plan B" is, nothing supersedes just letting these two characters — traditionally bit players at best in high-school comedies — be themselves. They're a pair of the most authentic 17-year-olds lately seen at the movies, something owed very definitely to two stars in the making in Verma and Moroles. Verma, is remarkably natural and soulful, while the so, so good Moroles swaggers through the film as a creature all her own. She'll even convince you that Christian trap music can rock.
"Plan B," a Hulu release, isn't rated by the Motion Picture Association of America but contains language and sexual material that would suggest an R rating. Running time: 108 minutes. Three stars out of four.