Published on May 31st, 2019 | by Noah Dimitrie1
Booksmart was lost in the shuffle of the ‘blockbuster every weekend’ model, but it’s a smart, funny comedy that deserves to be found and celebrated.
Let’s get the record straight—Booksmart is not the female Superbad. While the latter dealt in larger-than-life, satirical embodiments of a desperation to be cool, Booksmart’s pairing of best buddies are perfectly satisfied with being egregiously uncool. It reminded me more of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, a film about a pair of female friends who are naïve enough to think that they are superior to everyone by not participating in conventional teenage hedonism. Olivia Wilde’s hilarious directorial debut follows a similar roadmap, but with one key difference—Amy and Molly, our nerdy protagonists, realize their naivety at the end of the first act, and instead go on a cringey yet raucous bender based on their newly transformed impression of coolness. It doesn’t exactly go as planned.
This film is less about interrogating classic, misguided teenage ideals and more so about illustrating the limited and often-times confusing standpoint that each teenager possesses. Amy and Molly see themselves as superior to everyone, though as the movie unravels, they realize that they are the judgemental ones; in a way, they represent that goofy and relatable form of passive-aggressive snobbery that so many of us have indulged in. Their journey is about realizing that the peers they turned their noses up to are real, dimensional human beings and not just the cookie-cutter wannabees they had compartmentalized them as. In a pivotal scene in the first act, Molly, licking her chops over getting into Yale, discovers that all the party people she had scorned for four years also got into the likes of Harvard, Georgetown, etc. “I give great handjobs, but I also got a 1580 on the SAT’s,” retorts her perceived foe, Annabelle. It is in this moment that the film goes from good to great.
In a raunchy teen comedy that checks off the usual boxes—sex, drugs, partying, general bad behavior—it is so imperative that Wilde and co. find an interesting vantage point, and in this flick, in comes in the form of key flaws that not only characterize but also serve as a conductor for comedy to flow organically. We identify with their bond, the way they are each other’s whole world, but at the same time, the film does not lose sight of what makes them remarkably hilarious. The mixture of gravitas and satire is so salient, the whole film, even in somewhat familiar beats, feels entirely real. It comes to life precisely because it taps into perfectly relatable contradictions.
It’s also phenomenally successful in being earnest when it needs to. Molly and Amy have a dynamic that is somewhat symbiotic and just helps re-affirm their self-superiority. Molly feeds off Amy’s insecurity and shyness, and Amy feeds off of Molly’s charming spunk and witty narcissism. The young ladies—zealous feminists—use the codeword “Malala” to invoke a promise that, if spoken, the other will accept the code-speaker’s intentions without question or hesitation. One problem: Amy goes along willingly when Molly uses it; later, when Amy “Malala’s” Molly, she scoffs at it as being over-dramatic. Booksmart understands when to get real about who wears the pants in the friendship, and it acknowledges with empathy and humour how teenage friendships thrive but also fester and decay based on these unbalances of power.
The film is directed with such a stunning sophistication for a first-time director. Wilde has help from an absolutely hysterical screenplay conceived by Katherine Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic, Set it Up) that is chock full of creative one-liners and colorful characters. But this film primarily works because of the ever-so-natural way these characters are able to play off of one another. The level of nuance that is up on the screen is so achingly relatable and precise that I would not be surprised if Wilde actually went to high school for a year for research. With the style of a John Hughes, mixed with the playful and varied charm of an Amy Heckerling, Olivia Wilde nods at her predecessors but also carves out her own identity. A couple notable sequences include an abrupt but hyper-stylized dance-number that Molly’s imagination conjures, and an uproariously funny stop-motion animation sequence that captures the feeling of being too high better than any film I’ve ever seen. She is making strong, confident choices throughout the film that not only flexes her filmmaking chops but also stays within the confines of what the story requires and what its carefully crafted tone can handle. All those crafty, stylistic moments are not arbitrarily contrived but rather are rooted in character.
There are two star-making performances leading this film; both Beanie Feldstein (Molly) and Kaitlyn Dever (Amy) prove themselves as forces to be reckoned with in the future. Their relationship leaps off the screen, the pair nailing the minutia of BFF-ship and impressing upon viewers like me the relatable beauty of seeing two people riding the same wavelength. Some Googling indicates the actresses lived together for a couple months to develop chemistry. Makes sense; I got the impression that they were real life best friends from the moment they appeared on screen together. Yet, that should not detract from the brilliance of their performances. These actresses, along with Wilde, understand how relatability is constructed through the moving image. And they play off each other with a perfect sense of timing, a performative extrapolation of authentic feelings. That balance is so rare, yet so effective.
Go see this movie; support it with your money. It will make you want to call your best friend, go over the same inside jokes, and talk about nonsense for an hour. It’s not just a satire, it’s not just a nerds-gone-wild romp; it’s a love-letter to that beautiful, weird, flawed chemistry that makes sense only in a vacuum of your own creation.