Shortly after its release on the 20th of April this year (420, get it?), the Netflix original film Dude had accumulated numerous review headlines claiming it was the worst film on Netflix. Currently it holds a 41% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and an averaging rating of 5.1/10 on IMDb.
Oblivious to its instant notoriety, I stumbled upon the film in my recommendations. Although it brands itself as a ‘stoner-comedy’, Dude feels much more like a classic, girly, coming-of-age film. I watch a preposterous number of trashy teen chick-flicks meaning the Netflix preference algorithms quickly cough up B films of the genre as soon as they’ve been released.
So in keeping with the lexicon of the genre; what is the TLDR? Lily, Chloe, Amelia and Rebecca are a gang of four who are bonded by their love of weed, good hip-hop and sex positive feminism. Lily is dating Chloe’s brother Thomas who dies abruptly in a car accident at the beginning of the film. The story follows them as they negotiate the emotional complexities of his loss during their final year of high school. Sounds cliché, I know, but the ubiquity of a plot in no way alludes to a sufficient number of films pulling it off well. Despite the widespread contempt which is levelled at Dude, it’s portrayal of budding young feminists negotiating the line between principles and pleasure is heartening and exceedingly original.
Critics of the film complain that the protagonists are shallow stock characters seen time and time again in teen films. In doing so they overlook the value of portraying how feminist ideology intersects with the enduring pressures experienced by teenage girls to be beautiful, kind and sexually desirable. Sex positivity is an enduring theme in the dialogue amongst the group. The
idea that women can seek out sex for pleasure exclusively, rather than use it as a stepping stone to securing ongoing and exclusive male attention, is emphasised continuously; an example being when Lily pushes for the girls to take each other to prom, arguing that there’ll be plenty of boys who can satisfy their needs at the after party.
Sex culture in the group certainly isn’t sugar coated though; despite Amelia’s initial belief that casually hooking up with a younger boy gives her an upper hand, she is not immune to feeling hurt when he begins to hook up with other girls in front of her. Films which deliver social critique on gendered power dynamics often fail to acknowledge that empowerment through belief systems doesn’t grant unlimited immunity to emotional responses crafted through years of social expectations. Dude goes even further and asks should we strive to disavow old traditions, which are rooted in ideas we reject, when Chloe is invited to prom by a boy she likes but knows Lily will disapprove. Her dilemma represents a choice which young women face every day; ideology or pleasure?
Consent is another key theme in the film, yet many critics cite their discomfort with how Lily and those she confides in make light of her sexual assault. This critique exemplifies a topical debate in film and television; one which asks how do we critique a status quo characterised by complacency and peers who turn a blind eye without erasing the realistic portrayal of the issue at hand. If Lily’s friends had openly acknowledged her assault and justice had been served to her perpetrator, as the critics would seem to prefer, would the film be raising awareness of the fact that most victims do not get that privilege in real life? Equally, is the film raising awareness that what happened was assault if it isn’t explicitly called out by any character?
Even more important than its portrayal of bad practice in acquiring consent, is the films compelling portrayal of how to actively and seductively practice consent. Nothing about the sex scene between Lily and Noah feels forced and awkward. It’s not the dreaded montage of arched backs, beads of sweat on foreheads and mechanical, high-octane moaning, which is regrettably all too common. Lily displays that she knows her value and wants sex not validation. The hook up happens on her terms. When Noah kisses Lily at a party she kisses him back briefly before giving him her number. She ensures that she is comfortable by inviting him to come over during the afternoon when they’re both sober.
During foreplay Noah asking Lily if she minds if he takes her underwear off. Lily acknowledges how considerate his behaviour is and comments that it’s hot that he asked. Their communication is open, brave and natural. When Noah begins to kiss her on the neck she laughs and says it tickles before directing him to do something which she prefers. Sex is a trial and error process, and different things feel good for different people. Sex in film almost never portrays this fact. The bizarre, mute and seemingly telepathic on screen has made us all wonder at some point or another where we are going wrong. Acts of communication which we fear might be fumbling and awkward are shown to be sweet and sexy in all their human imperfection.
In summary, Dude is not without its flaws. The pace often feels stilted and at points its appeal to the ‘woke kids’ feels like it entirely lacks self-awareness. Rebecca at one point complains to Amelia that she misses their token white friends which is cringe worthy because the two people of colour have been cast in supporting roles. Nonetheless, I have never been one for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and if you feel the same way I think you will love this film.
By Richéal Ni Laoghaire – Film Writer