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‘Doin It’ Review: Lilly Singh’s Raunchy Coming-of-Age Comedy Leaves the Viewer Feeling Incomplete

Sex is a lot like filmmaking. You dive in when you’re ready, trust your companions, and learn from experience. Few people start out as experts, but there’s beauty in being allowed to try and fail in different environments over the years.

In her first feature film lead, comedian and former late night host Lilly Singh plays Maya, a computer engineer who takes a part-time job teaching sex education. After an incident in her teens led to her mother moving them back to India, Maya not only repressed her sexuality but grew to actively fear it — and now she’s teaching teens about sex despite having never done it herself. Singh, Neel Patel, and director Sara Zandieh co-wrote the film, which premiered at SXSW on March 12.

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Sonia Dhillon Tully plays Maya’s hyperconservative single mother Veena, a role that has unfortunately been tread and retread in the South Asian-American film ouevre (including in “Never Have I Ever,” which Maya and her mom watch together during this movie and which moves the plot forward on their behalf). Armed with a stereotypical accent (Tully is Canadian), outdated values, and austerity so strong that she won’t let her daughter watch “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (a film that is explicitly about family and one of the top Hindi box office grosses to this day), she shows up periodically to stamp out Maya’s sexual awakening. She peddles the refrain “What will people think?” and talks about finding strength in community, but viewers see no community throughout the film. Singh and Tully’s sweet rapport gives glimpses of a more comfortable mother-daughter dynamic, but the script too often forces Veena back into her mold.

The cast is rounded out by Sabrina Jalees as Maya’s best friend Jess, Ana Gasteyer as the school’s principal, Stephanie Beatriz as the quirky and benevolent lunch lady, and Mary Holland as a buttoned-up and casually racist full time teacher with a chip on her shoulder. Utkarsh Ambudkar and Trevor Salter pop in as possible love interests (sex interests) for Maya, but no one — not even Maya — is fleshed out beyond a name, job, and one baseline characteristic. Gasteyer is severely underused (her character and Holland’s honestly could have been merged), Beatriz becomes a confusing punchline machine, and the twist on Holland is played for laughs even though it’s genuinely dark (the kind of joke Tina Fey removed over years of retooling “Mean Girls,” because it’s not 2004 anymore). Jess is a classic rom-com sidekick with no agenda of her own, except a rapidly escalating relationship that she only tells Maya about with a “By the way” or “speaking of” transitions when they talk (to the point that it feels like a bit).

Jon Philpot’s editing hints at a promising wealth of ideas; Maya talking to camera like Singh herself has for years, a silly and enjoyable grocery store interlude with Maya and Jess, and a drug-fueled epiphany in the final act. The gags are fun, but like everything else they feel unfinished — the seed of a full joke that will leave you wanting more. There are laughs aplenty, and Singh is completely at ease in a starring role, selling the material even in its weaker moments.

To some extent, “Doin’ It” is an amalgam of things we’ve seen before; the raunchy sex odyssey, the generational chasm between immigrants and their children, even stodgy old teachers gobsmacked by innovative new blood (the “Dead Poet’s Society” tribute is just wild enough to work). There’s nothing wrong with Singh, Zandieh, and Patel resurrecting those themes, but all of it could be pushed further — and has been by other projects, like the admonitory grandma in “Jane the Virgin,” or the phallic grocery store genius of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” or pretty much all of “Sex Education.”

The film excels where it upholds its originality, in the classroom — containing notes of Singh’s own activism for women and girls. Maya’s relationship and rapport with her students is the most natural dynamic in the movie and yields its most watchable scenes (though the curriculum does test what adults should be discussing with minors, including Maya’s own personal life). The students function as a extension of Singh’s own fanbase, many of whom might be new to the sex-comedy genre and compelled to either seek more laughs or continue down the road of education and exploration. Everyone has to start somewhere, and like sex itself, “Doin’ It” is a thrilling venture into the unknown for the creative team. The best is yet to come.

Grade: C+

“Doin’ It” premiered at SXSW 2024. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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