Though summer is Hollywood tentpole time, in amongst the action blockbusters one can sometimes find a modestly budgeted sleeper hit in the making. Booksmart, actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, started off underperforming, inexplicably released on Memorial Day weekend – a time for family-friendly fare – and blown away at the box office by a Disney crowdpleaser, the live-action iteration of Aladdin. (It hasn’t been shown in many cinemas, either, though Upstate Films in Rhinebeck will have it by the time this post appears.)
You can scarcely be blamed if you avoided Booksmart at first because you didn’t think the world really needed another movie about teenagers feeling compelled to party their brains out on the eve of high school graduation before grappling with the real world. But you might want to give this one a chance. I’d bet that word-of-mouth is going to give it legs as 2019’s answer to Lady Bird. At the hands of a female director, it satisfyingly subverts and inverts some of the dudebro tropes that we associate with the teen-excess rom/com subgenre.
Beanie Feldstein, dudebro comedy stalwart Jonah Hill’s immensely talented little sister, got her big breakout role as Julie, the title character’s sidekick in Lady Bird. Now she has wisely been given a vehicle of her own. In Booksmart she portrays Molly, the valedictorian of the Class of 2019 at a mostly upper-middle-class high school somewhere in LA. She’s a driven, no-nonsense superstudent on track to become a Supreme Court justice. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), her best friend since forever, is almost as intensely academic. Molly is heterosexual, Amy a recently out lesbian, but both are virgins, and neither has ever so much as smoked a joint. They’re politically “woke,” break no rules and look down on all their less-serious age peers. Picture a couple of Californian Hermione Grangers and you’ve got the gist.
When an overheard school-bathroom conversation brings Molly to the shocking realization that even the kids who like to party have been getting into Ivy League colleges, she determines that she and Amy must experience at least one night of decadence before they head off to a summer of volunteer work in Botswana and then Yale and Columbia, respectively. So they set out to find the raunchiest graduation party in town, but are of course sidetracked multiple times en route. In other hands, this could have been a retread of overly familiar ground, reliant mainly on gross-out humor. But there’s a refreshingly feminist sensibility at play here, which ramps up by the third act into a transcendent humanization of the clichéd cliques of adolescent angstfests. More than how to have fun, Molly and Amy direly need to learn to open their hearts to the kids they disdain as mean girls, jocks, sluts, rich kids, theater geeks and so on. They also need to learn how to go on being best friends without staying stuck in their roles as the overbearing one and the passive one.
Booksmart is not immune to some of the failings of this genre. While the teens are more nuanced human beings than we’re used to, the adults are mostly one-dimensional ciphers, as irrelevant to the story as the blatting brass-instrument sounds that served as the voices of grownups in the TV iterations of the Peanuts comic strip. There are the obligatory vomiting scenes and awkward gropings amongst the sexually uninitiated, though we are spared the usual emphasis on horny young men “scoring.” As with Lady Bird, probably the most glaring narrative weakness here is the socioeconomic insularity of these teens’ world; their challenges are very much First World problems, and if there are any poor kids at this school, we don’t see them at all.
“Seeing” and being “seen” are up-to-the-minute buzzwords that are going to fix Booksmart at a particular point in time. So will the movie’s ubiquitous reliance on electronic devices and social media – no wild party or heartrending argument can go untaped and unstreamed in the world of the contemporary teenager, it seems – and the fact that pretty much every male character moonlights as an Uber or Lyft driver (though the latter is probably as much an LA car-culture thing as a 20-teens thing). In the same way that John Hughes’ Brat Pack movies typify the 1980s for us onscreen, I expect that someday people will be pointing back to Booksmart as iconic of the time we’re in right now. Eventually, I suppose, it will even seem quaint.
Cinematic high points in this film include a partially animated scene in which Molly and Amy have been slipped hallucinogens and perceive themselves as transformed into Barbie dolls, with amusing results, and a swoony, goofy, slo-mo fantasy dance sequence straight out of La La Land. Here’s the real reason to go see Booksmart: the witty script. Team-written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, with input from the highly talented roster of young actors to keep it all sounding real coming out of the mouths of youth, this screenplay is studded with hilarious one-liners and relentless banter that keep things moving along with verve. It’s a fine example of what fresh takes can happen when women are given plenty of places at the table in the writers’ room. They walk in; we walk out with a bounce in our steps.