Booksmart Review – Women Shine in this Straight A Comedy
Female led and not scared of its own subject matter, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, is a modern coming-of-age film that injects a fresh, funny and smart energy into the re-emerging genre.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is set for success, she’s Class president, Valedictorian and a straight-A student ready to leave high school behind and set course for Yale. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), her reserved and fiercely feminist best friend is preparing to spend the summer in Botswana, helping women make their own tampons, before heading off to Columbia. This is their victory cry, the thing that puts them ahead of their inferior, partying classmates and proves that all work and minimal play was worth it. That is, until Molly finds out that her fun loving classmates also got into Ivy League colleges, they just had fun along the way.
This is the first sign that Booksmart is offering up something different, the old tropes of the ‘geeks’ gaining academic acclaim in solitary and the ‘jocks’ partying constantly but only sharing one brain cell no longer apply here. In this film, people can be more than one thing…just let that sink in.
Now, our lovable know-it-all’s have only one night of high school left to prove that they are fun! This mission based narrative with insane diversions has brought about clear comparisons to Superbad from numerous reviewers, yet the shared narrative arc is pretty much where the similarities stop. These girls aren’t out on a sex romp, they aren’t determined to lose their virginity, as is the storyline in other teen films. This is about friendship, feminism and embracing the fun they have denied themselves.
Of course there is a slight romantic subplot, Amy has been ‘out’ since 8th grade but still hasn’t had a relationship or intimate encounter with another woman. Just because you’re out doesn’t mean dating is easier, it’s still the minefield it always is for shy teens. Molly is dealing with a crush on a fellow student who she sees as her intellectual inferior, an arrogant flaw beautifully explored in this character. If this was a traditional coming-of-age film then she would be 100% correct. Her Vice-President would be a bumbling Neanderthal purely because this genre has often felt safe in stereotypes. This is not the case however and it is this realisation that adds into the progressive feel of this film. I repeat, people can be more than one thing, “We are not one-dimensional. We are smart and fun!”
Booksmart’s main roots though are in its exploration of supportive female friendships and the modern teen experience, especially for females. The girls in this film discuss masturbation, watch porn and acknowledge their enjoyment of sex, and even hand jobs. It takes the strength back from things that have been seen as predominantly male and that women supposedly do not do or discuss, and definitely can’t enjoy.
Beyond this though is female comradery. It’s refreshing to hear women talk openly about sex on film but it’s also refreshing to see them supporting and embracing each other as well. Listening to Amy and Molly build each other up every time they try on an outfit, or tell each other that they are worthy and deserve to go for what they want is a brilliant message for young women. Even the exploration of Triple A’s nickname, given to her because she gave a couple of hand jobs in her car, and Amy’s refusal to use it sends a message of the consistent hypocrisy towards sex between the genders. There is power in these small moments.
These teenagers aren’t perfect, they aren’t clichés, they are real people with pitfalls and problems which is delightful to see. The characters are diverse and performed with a mixture of grounded reality and comedic exaggeration. There is a recognition of the archetypes that came before them; the slut, the stoner, the athlete, the dramatics and the rich kids, but an utter rejection of them becoming one note players. No character feels out of place, or thrown in for tokenism and they all land their comedy perfectly.
Wilde is on full form visually and brings an amazing and modern story to life which combines indie sensibilities with the humour of studio high school comedies whilst staying true to her characters. The writers, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, clearly know the usual tropes of coming-of-age films and manage to throw in new and exciting elements that really bring this into the millennial generation. There are some stunningly directed scenes that utilise colour design to bring fantasy and wonder to the teen experience. This is how we remember these moments, with a hazy tint and a romantic score and that is perfectly executed.
Flawed and real characters are at the centre of this film. There’s no stereotypical prejudices, the high school bullies aren’t pushing people into lockers, the cheerleaders aren’t brainless and the geeks don’t need to fight to rise up and be accepted, they just needed to accept the invitation. This is a coming of age for the modern audience, those dealing with overachieving pressures, burgeoning sexuality, and trying to find the balance between embracing exactly who they are, whilst also finding where they fit in with others. Booksmart manages to tap into the modern world without force feeding its messages or sacrificing any of its humour. This film deserves to be remembered, quoted, and cherished as a new direction for teen films.