Sex Ed may well be the perfect comeback vehicle for Haley Joel Osment, if only because its protagonist represents an affably apt metaphor for the Sixth Sense star’s career.
Once upon a time, a young Osment made waves through Hollywood thanks to his turn in M. Night Shyamalan’s best film, not to mention the treacly star vehicle Pay it Forward and the odd A.I. Artificial Intelligence; now he’s cast in movies primarily because there’s novelty in hearing the baby-faced actor spout off juvenile dialogue (a la September’s Tusk). So what better way for Osment to get back on track than by playing a loveable schlub who turns over a new leaf in life by teaching middle schoolers about the birds and the bees?
Thus, Isaac Feder’s Sex Ed: a movie that looks like a “kids say the darndest things” picture from a distance but more closely resembles a “Haley Joel Osment says the darndest things” picture in close-up. And, surprise of all surprises, it’s a real charmer, a scrappy little comedy about sex positivism in an era when Americans still feel super duper uncomfortable frankly talking about anything and everything erotic. Osment is its center, and Feder barely lets a frame go by that doesn’t prominently feature his bright, twinkling visage. The director doesn’t miss many chances to put his leading man in awkward scenarios, either, so in the end Sex Ed takes as much advantage of Osment’s celebrity persona as Kevin Smith did.
But Sex Ed is a far more successful picture than Tusk, and if Osment’s casting is a punchline of sorts, it’s a pretty good one. Here, he plays Eddie Cole, a man born to instruct but robbed of opportunities to do so. He’s about as down on his luck as a person can get—he works at a bagel shop, and he’s a virgin, a fact that isn’t helped by his best friend and roommate JT’s (Glen Powell) tendency to have sex all over their apartment with his awesome new girlfriend Ally (Castille Landon). But then Eddie finds a job running an after school program in Ybor City, Florida, and, answering the call, he finds himself able to do what he does best: talk to kids about puberty, safe sex, and the human reproductive system. Which happens more or less by accident—it all starts with a student starting her first menstrual cycle—but Eddie sees a real need for sex education in the school, and he embraces his new role with enthusiasm.
That’s actually one of Sex Ed’s bigger problems: there’s not enough bonding between Eddie and his young wards, a necessity for making the third act work. All the same, watching Osment go all-in on his duties as the awkward fish out of water is an unexpected delight. He’s a dorky virgin, but he’s a loveable dorky virgin (not to mention a distant screen cousin to the likes of Dewey Finn), and Osment gives him so much innocent verve that it’s hard not to root for the guy as he deals with challenges to his curriculum and romantic temptations. As one might expect, the parents (in particular a strict, authoritarian reverend played by Chris Williams) have a thing or two to say about what their kids are learning in school. On top of that, there’s the matter of Pilar (Lorenza Izzo), the older sister of student Tito (Surviving Jack’s Kevin Hernandez) and Eddie’s instant crush.
You don’t need to be a rocket scientist (or even a middle school teacher) to figure out how these elements play into Sex Ed’s plot, though to his credit Feder manages to steer at least one of these threads away from its expected conclusion. Clichés are the stuff on which Sex Ed is built, of course—see the film’s puzzling, climactic slow clap for proof—but they serve a fine enough workmanlike purpose, and when they don’t, there’s a whole coterie of guest spots (from Matt Walsh to Parks and Recreation’s Retta) to distract us.
In other words: come for the Osment, stay for the supporting cast, but note that you may be laughing more because of whom they are than what they’re saying. Sex Ed is amusing enough, but apart from its decidedly modern sexual politics (which still become tangled at times), this has all been done before. We know these characters before we even meet them; we know the jokes before they’re delivered; we know these people before their desires are revealed.
Director: Isaac Feder
Writer: Bill Kennedy
Starring: Haley Joel Osment, Laura Herring, Abby Elliott, Glen Powell, Matt Walsh, Castille Landon, Retta, Lorenza Izzo, Kevin Hernandez
Release Date: Nov. 7, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.