Does Booksmart Innovate or Play it Safe?
Director: Olivia Wilde Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein Running Time: 102 minutes
The premise of Booksmart is simple; two bookish besties are about to graduate high school attempt to have a wild night before heading their separate ways. This formula of loser-lets-loose has basically become a subgenre; think I Love You Beth Cooper, Superbad, Netflix’ Good Kids even. Booksmart does something a little different in spotlighting a friendship between two teenage girls – there’s a specific undercurrent at play here that feels fresh. But does Booksmart rely too heavily on tropes?
At the start of the film, we meet Molly and Amy on their last day of highschool. While everyone else (including the Principal, played by Justin Sudeikis) is winding down, Class President Molly wants to discuss next year’s student gov budget with anyone she can find to listen. It’s made clear that Molly looks down on her classmates and that they consider her uptight at least and unbearable at worst but when Molly overhears them gossiping about her in the shared gender bathroom and confronts them – her entire world view is shattered when ‘Triple A’ reveals that high-horse Molly isn’t the only one who’s joining the Ivy League. She runs through the halls interrogating people on which colleges they’ve been accepted to and spirals out at the thought that she’s wasted her high school years when she could’ve worked hard and played hard with the rest of them. This sparks off her determination to have one wild night and Amy is just along for the ride.
Booksmart has a talented ensemble cast it doesn’t quite know how to handle. Lisa Kudrow features as Amy’s kooky-religious mother who is fiercely supportive of her daughter. Her screen time is tiny and she isn’t given the space to fully flex her comic muscles which feels like a waste. Jessica Williams plays the cool teacher Ms. Fine who’s a little too down with the kids –she sleeps with one of her former students at this pre-graduation party and just before is like “You’re twenty, right?” It’s not funny, it doesn’t add anything to the film and it strikes a bad chord – why is she even interested in attending a teenage party and also, if the genders were reversed this would not (and should not) be viewed as an offhand throwaway subplot. Molly and Amy hit several parties on their quest to get to the most popular boy in school’s aunt’s house, and we get a fleeting insight into these sweet and interesting characters – it might have been a better call to have the girls realise that they have been closing themselves off from all of these stellar people and maybe even choose to stay at one of the other parties to show that they’ve learned the value of these acquaintance-turned-friendships, but instead Molly insists that they reach Nick’s party.
I would have liked to have seen more of an arc for Amy. She’s not as fleshed out as Molly and she’s never driving the plot forward in quite the same way. This film is being described as though it’s about their friendship but it reads to me as Molly doing things and Amy reacting. Molly is upset by how others view her, but she is equally, if not more, judgemental and shallow than her peers and she never really gets called on it. We have the classic argument between this kind of duo where one is attacked for being meek and the other for being too pushy but it feels we come down too hard on Amy. And even though being meek is less of a character flaw, she immediately resolves it by proving to herself and everyone else that she is a woman and not a womouse.
That said, Booksmart is a well-made film with some innovative elements. The score, contributed by Dan the Automator of Gorillaz fame, is suitably contemporary and adds to the dramatic weight that things like having a falling out with a friend or watching your crush kiss someone else at a party have when you’re a teenager. The argument between Molly and Amy which serves as the central conflict is beautifully shot and in removing sound as they get more and more heated, Wilde really hones in on the emotion of the moment. The scene in the pool is beautifully shot and if you don’t see this film then I’m sure you’ll see it on @OnePerfectShot a month from now. There is a stop-motion animated sequence which is handled well and although it feels a little shoe-horned, this section examines body-image in an interesting way. The film is respectful of its audience in a way that unfortunately tends to be missing from films aimed at teens and especially teenage girls.
So does Booksmart have a fresh take, or does it play it safe? Yes.
It does both. I could see this film falling prey to the media’s tendency to put a lot of pressure on films etc. from filmmakers beyond cis-het white men of a certain age and background. The film has flaws, granted, and Molly is entitled and shallow and never really develops past that, but the same can definitely be said of the characters in Superbad or Good Kids (more on Good Kids here if you fancy it). Booksmart is a fun summer movie and a competent comedy. It has a fresh perspective on familiar tropes, and while it may fall down in certain areas it is very much worth a watch.