In the winning teen comedy Easy A, Emma Stone (Zombieland) stares into the camera with a mixture of imperious self-confidence and faint embarrassment: She knows she's a babe, but she can't help but find the attention being directed at her a little ridiculous.
It's the perfect approach for Stone's character Olive Penderghast, a brainy-funny regular girl who for years has been mostly ignored by her classmates — until she claims to have lost her virginity to a mysterious college student. In high school (just as in Hollywood), nothing guarantees celebrity quite like a juicy scandal.
Deftly riffing off Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the book Olive happens to be reading in her English class taught by Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church), Easy A watches as this little white lie blossom to uncontrollable proportions.
Her friend Brandon (Dan Byrd), taunted by the jocks for being gay, comes to Olive with a request: Will she pretend as if she's had sex with him so that he might be able to fool his classmates into thinking he's straight? Olive agrees, which leads to a steady stream of desperately unpopular young men knocking on her door for fake sex, which quickly leads to her being ostracized by a large population of the high school.
For its first half, Easy A looks as if it might turn into something uncommonly meaningful and original.
Olive's chief nemesis is a pretty Christian girl (a terrific Amanda Bynes), who leads a campaign to get Olive expelled. Screenwriter Bert V. Royal seems to be tackling head-on the strain of religiosity that has emerged in the last decade or so at American schools.
It's bad enough that the cheerleaders and jocks get to lord their popularity over everyone else, this movie argues. Now they get to claim the moral high ground, too.
Unfortunately, Easy A loses steam and turns needlessly complicated with the introduction of a subplot involving Mr. Griffith's cheating wife (Lisa Kudrow).
Byrd's Brandon character is shunted out of the proceedings much too quickly — a mistake because he lends the movie a touching emotional undercurrent about the struggles of the bullied in high school.
Still, the cast — which also includes Alyson Michalka as Olive's best friend, Penn Badgley as the dreamy boy she's crushed on for years, and Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci has her liberal, jokey parents — is utterly adorable, and director Will Gluck keeps the pace brisk and breezy.
Easy A ultimately more like an easy B or B-plus, but it's an admirable effort all the same.