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‘Doin’ It’ Review: Even Educated Fleas Know Better Than Lilly Singh’s Inexperienced Sex Ed Teacher

Some film festivals take themselves entirely too seriously. Not South by Southwest, the Austin-based multidisciplinary mega-event where amped-up crowds welcome comedies with open arms — the raunchier the better. This year, one logline stood out as especially promising: “A 30-year-old Indian American virgin gets a job teaching high school Sex Ed.” Alas, “Doin’ It” doesn’t cut it (it’s basically 2014 Haley Joel Osment comedy “Sex Ed” with a cultural spin). The concept is funny, but the execution feels forced, in part because the substitute in question (played by Lilly Singh) is supposed to be following an abstinence-based curriculum. In theory, her deep-seated celibacy should make her perfect for the job.

The movie aims to combat the shame around all aspects of human sexuality, which seems like an admirable but inevitably controversial goal. But “Doin’ It” goes too far straight out of the gate, opening with an embarrassment no teenager can live down: A pubescent version of Singh’s character, Maya (played by Celine Joseph), waits nervously backstage at the school dance show, when her dance partner chooses this (of all times) to compare private parts. His pants drop, then the curtain does, exposing both of them to the whole school.

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There in the audience, looking horrified, sit her conservative mother (Sonia Dhillon Tully) and Nani (Usha Uppal). But that’s not all, and while it’s inappropriate (as opposed to prudish) to describe her X-rated humiliation in detail, suffice to say the incident is so messy, the camera lens needs to be cleaned. Meant to be hilarious, the indignity is mostly just gross, closer to a sex crime than a punchline. The incident makes a legend of the boy (later played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), while young Maya is packed up and shipped off to India, where no one bothers to give her “the talk” about the birds and the bees.

Flash forward 15 or so years, and Maya returns to the U.S., full of ambition, if not necessarily life experience. The now-tech-savvy entrepreneur has an idea for an app aimed at teens, and in order to perfect it, she decides to work as a substitute teacher at Proudamore High School — you know, the way most people with products aimed at teenagers get to know their demo. Looking to fulfill her diversity quota, the principal (Ana Gasteyer) hires Maya on the spot, assigning her to teach sex ed. They would have been better off employing Barbara (Stephanie Beatriz), a randy divorcée who works in the cafeteria — and by far the film’s funniest cast member (though Sabrina Jalees, who plays lesbian best friend Jess, gets laughs too).

Now, Maya may be a virgin, but she’s hardly the least qualified person to have ever been given this assignment (at least she’s not seducing her students or trying to scare them with STD details). Surprisingly, instead of the joke being that Maya winds up repeating her naive ideas to a class with more experience on the subjects than she has, “Doin’ It” takes the comedy in a less intuitive direction. Maya decides to be the “dopest” sex ed teacher of all time, setting out to lose her virginity and bring practical lessons to these hormonally confused kids. The class includes all the stereotypes you’d expect: the all-talk jock (Christian Martyn), the abstinence advocate (Jessica Clement), the identity-conflicted cool girl (Ashley Singh).

After the suggested lesson plans fall flat, Maya fluffs things up with unorthodox original ideas. She brings in the “gender elephant” model (introducing gender socialization concepts that wouldn’t fly in Florida). She screens explicit videos about the female orgasm. She gives the students “self love” tasks as homework. And she takes time after class to advise Abbey Ho (Sydney Topliffe) about when’s the right time to have sex. The school board’s answer to that question: not until marriage. Granted, that’s unrealistic, but so is everything about Maya’s approach to sex ed, starting with the idea that she can get away with any of this. As for Singh, she’s funniest when addressing the audience directly, but awkward-acting when in character, exaggerating feelings Maya has supposedly learned to hide.

Great comedies are grounded in truth, but also feature an element of unpredictability, whereas the only real surprise in “Sex Ed” is just how far Singh and director Sara Zandieh plan to take things. There are gags that must have seemed promising on paper (like Maya’s mom screaming “Come!” off-camera while her daughter experiments with a vibrator) and a handful that actually land (like what her mom does after finding the device). At school, Maya has a crush on the coach (Trevor Salter), whose function is to be well adjusted and affirmational, especially compared with a racist rival teacher (Mary Holland) who tries to humiliate Maya at every turn.

“Doin’ It” wants to preach sex positivity, but feels stuck in the immature, shock-comedy mode of “American Pie” and early Farrelly brothers movies. At one point, Maya compliments the class for not teasing Abbey about her last name, Ho. That scene effectively summarizes the central paradox of the movie: Its sense of humor is stuck in junior high, while its agenda feels collegiate. Meanwhile, jokes about the character’s repressive Indian American upbringing are recycled from countless other movies. Occasionally, a raunchy sex comedy comes along that teaches jaded audiences a thing or two (John Waters typically manages, as does Pamela Adlon’s SXSW-launched “Babes”). “Doin’ It” amounts to a long list of what not to do.

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