Director: Olivia Wilde
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Mason Gooding, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte
For many people, secondary/high school is a time best forgotten, and yet we see so many teen-based movies reminding the majority of us of our experiences (albeit updated for whatever high school is like these days, or thereabouts). Quite often though, the films are all the same: teenage boys looking to get laid/party/avoid trouble, objectified teen girls/adult women and then the guys face some kind of (often questionable) reform toward the end. It’s not far from reality, but it’s also not very well-rounded. Think American Pie, Superbad, She’s All That, amongst others. Is Booksmart just another teen movie, a satire of females in a modern high school to appease the masses, or does it give us something new to think about?
Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) have been best friends pretty much all their lives and have stuck together throughout high school. Both place their education and academia above anything else, meaning that they don’t spend any time doing the activities many of their peers do, such as breaking rules and partying. As their high school graduation approaches, Molly realises how much they have both missed out on due to their focus on getting into good colleges. The night before graduation, Molly and Amy decide to go to their classmate’s party, which isn’t as easy to find as they first think. As they end up at other parties and running into people they wouldn’t normally see outside of school, they come to realise a lot about those they had looked down on over the years, particularly Molly. They also realise a lot about themselves as individuals and as best friends, as situations they find themselves in put their friendship to the test.
The first thing to take note of about Booksmart is that it is written entirely by women, as well as being directed by a woman, with Olivia Wilde in her directorial debut, and it really shows. The characters, even the males, are all well-rounded (at least, as well-rounded as teenagers can get) and aren’t two-dimensional with glaringly obvious agendas. Take the female character of Triple A (her rather judgemental nickname is explained in the movie) played by Molly Gordon: she explains (even in the trailer) that she enjoys messing around with guys, but that’s she also incredibly smart and on her way to college. Because why can’t a female be both a sexual deviant AND an academically gifted powerhouse? The same goes for most characters, male and female: although they’ve spent years having fun and breaking rules, how does that also mean they don’t have brains? Even the romantic interests aren’t purely there for sexual reasons: when Molly spends some time with a guy she likes, she flirts but at no point does she assume they will sleep together; she just admits to Amy that it’s “going well” with him. And Amy, an out-and-proud lesbian (not something you often see in a teen movie unless it’s senselessly used for comedic purposes or to put the lead male down), has similar interests to her crush, even though they rarely interact and she mostly admires her from afar.
What also sets this film apart from other teen movies is the nature of Molly and Amy’s relationship: it’s purely platonic, however Molly doesn’t mind Amy’s parents assuming there’s more to it than that. If it was a couple of teen male characters, they would likely be shown to resent such an assumption. Molly and Amy are just that comfortable with each other, so much so that they share all their secrets (well, mostly, without giving anything away) like they’re sisters. The narrative allows for a lot of trust between the girls, which isn’t something male characters are often given, that is also tested at one point. The girls are made fun of at school, but only for their lack of enjoyment of being teenagers: not one person pokes fun at Amy’s sexuality or her friendship with Molly. If there’s a downside, it’s probably that that’s not entirely true to life. The chances of the girls, or at least Amy, facing prejudice or abuse is more likely than not. However, the choice to omit that kind of thing from this movie could prove to be a smart move; a lot of teens (and people in general) take their cues from what they see in the media and in entertainment, so if they’re not seeing any homophobic behaviour or bullying of any kind in the films they choose to see, then it’s a start in stamping out that kind of abuse in reality.
We haven’t seen too much of Feldstein in films before, bar her performance as Julie, Saoirse Ronan’s excellent BFF in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and other small roles, but she is showing a talent for comedy (much like her brother, Jonah Hill) that reflects a more feminine sense of humour (again, a testament to the female writers she works with). Her career is absolutely one to watch for the future, especially if she takes a similar path to her brother and opts to take on some less comedic and more dramatic roles. Dever’s Amy is probably the more relatable of the two, with her personality a little less dour and bookish than Molly’s. She’s probably more the tag-along of the two, however she shows instances of being able to make her own decisions without Molly, and it shows that she is friends with Molly because she wants to be. Dever’s own comedic aptitude is also palpable throughout, and she’s definitely another one to watch. In supporting roles, Lourd is excellently funny as Gigi, though the character does take some warming up to (which is probably the point), Gisondo plays empathetic (and sometimes just pathetic) Jared, the High School Musical‘s Ryan to Gigi’s Sharpay, and the rest of the young supporting cast play their characters just right so as to create a diverse yet realistic portrayal of high school teens. Sudeikis is… well, Sudeikis, in his role as the principal (being Olivia Wilde’s husband probably also helped), and Williams is fun, if a little unrealistic, as fave teacher Miss Fine. Also, Kudrow and Forte are just plain cute as Amy’s parents.
Booksmart is less the female Superbad (as it’s been mostly compared to) and more akin to The Breakfast Club or Say Anything, films that go beyond stereotypes and flips them on their head. It’s not overtly sarcastic or dim-witted. It’s smart and fun and represents how people should be, which is just themselves… but maybe with a little room for experimentation and change. The girls are still themselves at the end, and the only thing that’s changed, and for the better, is the strength of their relationship. Although it is a comedy, a little more in the way of challenges faced by teenagers (and not just your average teenagers) wouldn’t have gone amiss. You’ll enjoy it, but it certainly won’t make you miss being a teen any time soon.