A closeup of Lilly Singh, with her hair in a low ponytail and in a white polka dotted shirt, in front of a chalkboard.

Lilly Singh’s ‘Doin’ It’ is an outlandish sex ed comedy teens actually need

The SXSW debut is kinda gross, really funny, and surprisingly thought-provoking in its politics

Lilly Singh stars in "Doin' It," which follows a sexually inexperienced woman teaching high school sex ed.

Still frame from "Doin' It"

The humor in Doin’ It often has a juvenile quality, but whether or not it always works, this sensibility is fitting for a raunchy comedy about teenage sex ed. The movie is not, however, about a teenage character. Rather, it follows a 30-year-old Indian American woman who, despite being a virgin herself, ends up being the sex education instructor for a high school class. Starring YouTuber and former talk show host Lilly Singh, the SXSW premiere from Iranian American director Sara Zandieh is mostly straightforward in its tale of delayed coming-of-age, but ends up centering surprisingly brazen politics, alongside refreshingly frank depictions of not just sex and sexuality, but the effects of shame as experienced by Asian communities.

At her high school talent show, young Maya (Celine Joseph) is about to perform as part of a hip-hop dance troupe, much to the dismay of her mother Veena (Sonia Dhillon Tully) and her grandmother, or nani (Usha Uppal), who laud the traditional Indian Bharatanatyam dancers who precede her on the stage. However, Maya’s moment in the spotlight is cut short by a misunderstanding, where she’s caught in what appears to be a sexually compromising position. It might be a little too gross to describe here. Not gross in the way the film eventually treats sex and the human body—fun gross, in a way we should all be more open about—but rather, unpleasantly gross. It isn’t the last time the movie feels this way, eliciting the odd “eww” where there should be laughs. But thankfully instances like these are overshadowed by some deft writing and character work.

A quick montage catches us up on the consequences: Veena takes Maya all the way back to India and enrolls her in an all-girls school, where she suffers harsh punishments anytime she mentions the off-limit topic of S-E-X. When she gets her first period, her nani gives her a strict warning to be careful, and that’s that—for many Indian students, there’s no such thing as sex ed—and before she knows it, she’s a 30-year-old computer engineer who’s never slept with anyone.

Singh steps into the role of adult Maya just as she moves back to the United States to try and fund an app for concerned parents to monitor their teenagers’ screen use, but she’s never spent time with American kids, and doesn’t know what they’re into. So, she decides to take up a job as a substitute teacher, but rather than being slotted into a class for which she’s qualified, she ends up in charge of a school’s state-mandated, abstinence-heavy sex education (an ongoing issue in the United States). In the process of learning what and how to teach her rowdy classroom—a diverse, boisterous, and ultimately lovable bunch—she ends up learning about herself as well, as she begins unpacking some of the emotional and sexual baggage with which she traveled.

At first, Doin’ It seems simple and unobtrusive in its depiction of a woman trying to recapture her lost youth. Along with her delightfully outgoing lesbian best friend Jess (Sabrina Jalees), she creates a bucket list of experiences she missed out on as an American student in the mid-2000s, like burning mix CDs, and of course, having sex for the first time. However, despite her eagerness, the task proves more difficult than it initially seems. Some men are too forward with their bizarre kinks, but even when the right guy finally comes around, Maya has second thoughts the moment things get hot and heavy, visualized in the form of sudden flashbacks to her nani’s childhood warnings. Even as an adult, she can’t let go of her deeply ingrained sexual hang-ups.

Singh’s performance feels mostly natural—especially in her scenes with the equally naturalistic Pakistani Canadian Jalees—though she ends up leaning towards her more overt idiosyncrasies as a kid-friendly YouTuber during Maya’s awkward moments. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It turns out Singh’s talents are just right for Maya (a character she co-wrote with Zandieh and Neel Patel), because anytime Maya clams up under pressure, she ends up saying something accidentally offensive, leading to the kind of gesticulation-heavy self-admonishment befitting of the Disney Channel (“Awwwkward!”). After all, Doin’ It, despite being a sex comedy featuring full-frontal nudity, is the kind of film that would benefit young teenage viewers, especially those in states where abstinence-only sex ed is the norm. If it comes off as preachy, that’s only because Maya ends up so utterly committed to her cause of helping her students discover their gender and sexuality in constructive and artistic ways, which they express through craft projects and thought experiments that go beyond the norm of even more progressive forms of sex ed.

After all, Doin’ It, despite being a sex comedy featuring full-frontal nudity, is the kind of film that would benefit young teenage viewers, especially those in states where abstinence-only sex ed is the norm.

However, even as Maya practically monologues a fun, hip, self-written sex education handbook to the camera, lingering doubts about her own sexual (dis)comfort remain. Her journey is more complicated than a mere A to B, wherein helping kids makes for instant therapy. The film is far thornier than that, and Maya is far from a perfect teacher (or a perfect student). Her insecurities and lack of experience bleed into her work, and into her cutesy romance with her charming Filipino American coworker Alex (Trevor Salter). The more she pushes her students, and the system, to accept her version of sex ed—righteous though it may be—the more her curriculum begins to read like an amusing cry for help. It’s as though she thinks helping other people is a way out of her own labyrinth of shame, from which she can escape without confronting her own personal minotaur: her mother, whose conservative upbringing molded her views on sex, and herself.

As Veena, the Canadian-born Dhillon Tully’s Indian accent occasionally comes off as forced, but she imbues the character with withheld curiosities, as a middle-aged divorcee who walls herself off from the world. As much as she’s a villain in Maya’s story, she’s her own person too—a narrative seldom afforded to immigrant moms in generational culture-clash sagas—though she can’t admit to herself that she might have chemistry with her kindly Iranian neighbor Farhad (Cas Anvar). Even when the movie loses steam, and its jokes don’t land on occasion, its performances hold strong, digging into characters written with numerous fun and intriguing dimensions. Even the obligatory, finger-wagging racists, meant to highlight Maya’s experiences as woman of color, end up with hints of complexity, albeit usually as punchline reveals.

The filmmaking may not always unearth the subtext beneath Maya’s surface—except for a few fun moments of drug-fueled abstraction—but Doin’ It unfolds with comedic verve. It has enough by way of hilarious interactions that you’ll come to adore its ensemble, and believe in its mission to find creative ways to confront sexual taboos and discover new modes of thinking. At the end of the day, the film itself is one such form of expression.

Published on March 15, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter