Curiously unadventurous for a sex-positive teen romantic comedy, Sammi Cohen’s “Crush” centers its premise on an age-old recipe: an emotionally bemused heroine desperately pursues her supposed soul mate, when her ultimate the one has been right under her nose all along.
Still, predictability isn’t the real deficit of this well-meaning and progressive Hulu original that aims to land somewhere in the vicinity of “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “American Pie.” After all, some of the most timeless and irresistible romances stem from tales we’ve all heard a million times before. What’s jarring in “Crush” is the absence of some requisite dose of youthful mischief, a sense of stakes and perhaps even a lightly scandalous touch, integral to the spirit of many of the genre staples Cohen and co-writers Kirsten King and Casey Rackham attempt to revive on their own terms.
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Still, the world “Crush” conjures up is surprisingly timid, despite its inclusive cast, sunny cinematography and refreshing choice of putting an openly gay protagonist in the driver seat of a formula that’s nearly always seen through a straight lens. It’s a decisively villain-free approach in which everyone, adults and teens alike, feels like they have been generated by an algorithm to represent the most idealistic version of their respective personas instead of real, plausible people. In that regard, imagine a “Mean Girls” where the gags are safely trite and characters seldom say or do the wrong thing: That’s the boringly amiable vibe here, a risk-free disposition that admittedly weakened several young-skewing movies of late, even worthier ones like “Booksmart” and the “To All The Boys” series.
Played by an instantly likable Rowan Blanchard, aspiring artist Paige dwells in a similarly cheerful atmosphere in “Crush,” stressing about an admissions assignment required by the art college of her dreams and obsessing over her long-time crush, the alluring Gabby (Isabella Ferreira). Between her studies, her platonic soulmate Dillon (Tyler Alvarez) and a supportive environment in school and at home, Paige seems to have it easy. Her almost aggressively sex-positive mother Angie (Megan Mullally) amusingly challenges all traditional parent-child boundaries — so open-minded that she allows edibles (but not before school) and gifts cool intimacy swags like glow-in-the-dark dental dams to her daughter. But a social-media-famous mystery artist known as “King Pun,” a young Banksy-type playfully vandalizing school property with their art, soon derails Paige’s seemingly balanced existence. In due course, Paige gets blamed for King Pun’s actions by the pragmatic Principal Collins (Michelle Buteau) and overeager Coach Murray (Aasif Mandvi) and finds herself suspended from the semester.
But the resourceful girl cuts a deal with the school to overturn the decision: What if she investigates the situation and delivers the actual King Pun to them on a silver platter, as well as joins the school’s track team as a favor to Coach Murray? (Who cares if she isn’t the athletic type when Gabby is also a part of the crew.) To share the burden of her newfound gumshoe duties, she recruits Gabby’s no-nonsense sister AJ (Auli’I Cravalho of “Moana”) as the bad cop to her good cop. The two make a pact to crack the case against a ticking clock while navigating their complex feelings for each other.
As the idiosyncratic AJ, Cravalho gives a remarkable performance, establishing palpable chemistry with Blanchard’s Paige even when the clichéd script lets her down, hititing only the most ordinary notes like teen insecurities and sisterly rivalry. In fact, most of the cast deserves similar praise: You can’t help but respect the confidence in which Buteau and Mandvi deliver their gratingly unfunny, SNL-type routines and lines (e.g. “My references are older than Taylor Swift”) and how close they occasionally get to selling the film’s often irritating jokes. Elsewhere, Alvarez and Teala Dunn (as his girlfriend Stacey) also manage to make a memorable impression with their characters, a sexually-very-active couple not given much depth or color beyond that.
But the continually charming cast only takes “Crush” so far when the film leaves various potentially rich ideas on the table, like a budding artist’s process of finding their voice. The film asks audiences to believe in Paige’s creative development while showing very little of her art throughout. Also overestimated is King Pun’s talents as a disruptive artist (if the limited examples of their pun-centric art are any indication), their narrative appeal as an enigmatic figure when their identity remains laughably obvious and the writers’ overall knack for successful puns — unless two nails drinking by a “we’re getting hammered” caption is your idea of good humor.
By its after-school-special close, “Crush” profoundly proposes: “You can’t force art. You have to just let it come to you.” If only the filmmakers had taken a page out of their own book here and resisted some of the artificiality on display.
“Crush” is available to stream on Hulu.
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