If any of you are like me, I would like to express my sincere condolences at this moment. But, if you do share any common characteristics with this overly-opinionated amorphous blob named Zach, perhaps you can relate to the awkward nerd who puts up metaphoric walls in high school because they are afraid of others people? (In my defense, people in high school and middle school are very intimidating.) It is because of those traits that “Booksmart” connects on a personal level to my experiences, and likely can connect to all of you as well.
“Booksmart” is a story about being brave, trying new things, keeping an open mind, but not forgetting who you are, all during the most insecure era of your life. Director Olivia Wilde takes a concept that has seen a lot of play in teen comedies before and gives a very modern and intelligent take on the preexisting formula. We follow Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two incredibly quirky best friends with a reputation in their school as annoying try-hards, who have spent their entire high school careers studying, at the expense of their social lives, so they could go to elite colleges. When it is revealed to Molly that she attends the single most unrealistically successful high school ever, and all of the “fun” and “popular” kids got into schools of extreme prestige as well, it sets her off on an existential crisis where she insists that she and Amy go to a high school party, and prove that they are fun before they graduate.
Where this film succeeds the most is with its incredibly charismatic and varied gallery of characters and personalities. Aside from the two leads, the other students and teachers that Amy and Molly interact with are all excellent. For example, Gigi (Billie Lourd) is rich druggy who inexplicably can bend the laws of physics to appear at every single party in town seemingly all at once. Having a drug-addicted comic relief character is not new (In fact, I recently got on Seth Rogan’s case for him overplaying this card), however, her timing is fantastic and she seemingly becomes a self-aware cartoon that plays well within the story. There are other characters, like Alan (Austin Crute) and George (Noah Garvin), who are absurdly over-the-top theater students that love to indulge in the melodramatic at every possible situation, and like Theo (Eduardo Franco), who is an aloof hippie who failed the 7th grade twice, somehow scored a job at Google right out of high school, and managed to seduce with his teacher (Jessica Williams) before graduating. It is the totality of the ensemble, which is given ample time to be explored and fleshed out, that really solidifies the quality of the film.
Amy and Molly shoulder the load of this film. To say their relationship is adorable would be a cruel understatement. They have a complementary dynamic, where Amy possesses a dry, sarcastic wit and Molly is loud, charismatic, and controlling. They have phenomenal banter which exhibits exceptional chemistry between the actresses that I can only hope signifies a friendship in real life as well. They are genuinely funny together, while simultaneously balancing problems of typical relationships and the changing constructs within them.
The lessons of growing up are some that hit close to the chest, especially if you are not far removed from the terrors of high school. As Amy and Molly interact with these people they essentially ignored or looked down on for the past four years, they learn a truth that I wish I had grasped when I was their age: Not everyone is an asshole. People have depth and most of the time, they do want to be your friend, given the chance. Both of them also go on their own quests to get the attention of their respective crushes where they both exhibit an all-too-familiar optimistic naivety that everyone has once felt about their first love. Molly pursues her jock of a student body Vice President, Nick (Mason Gooding), and Amy awkwardly interrogates her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) to see if she is even interested in girls. They both learn to overcome their own expectations and keep an open mind, and it is this sequence that brilliantly explores that lesson.
Much of the humor stems from the awkward relatability of growing up and the characters pretending like they have any real idea what they are doing. However, there is a lot of referential humor, as well. Amy and Molly are very intelligent young women, and they often site history, current events, and art in their casual conversations. This is essentially anti-Big Bang Theory humor (Finally, someone brave enough to take a swipe at “The Big Bang Theory”). The joke is not the fact that they are referencing something nerdy, but the fact that what they are referencing makes sense despite its obscurity. Credit should be given to the writers here, because there is a precedent for this lazy technique to masquerade about as intelligent humor for nerds, and they avoided the pitfall.
Both Amy and Molly are outspoken feminists. We know that essentially from the moment they are introduced to us when we see Amy’s car with a collage of bumper stickers calling on Elizabeth Warren to be president. It is a major aspect of both of their characters, and while it is presented as a quasi-satirical trait, exemplifying the abrasive extremes of steadfast, uncompromising views, I worry that some viewers will only look at the surface level content and be turned off. There is no question that the film is a progressive one, putting those ideals on a pedestal, however, in my opinion, there is some nuance to the execution if you are willing to examine the film beyond just the dialogue. But even if it wasn’t executed as such, I think it is ok to have a film with two female leads who unapologetically support feminism. Our cup overrunneth with films, especially of this genre, that are all about horny teenage boys getting laid by cheerleaders and mysterious girls next door. It is far from the end of the world to explore the other end of the spectrum.
As I write this, “Booksmart” is reportedly struggling at the box office, and that is a shame. It may seem that audiences are more willing to shell out their hard-earned legal tender to watch big-budget Disney remakes, and “Booksmart” is likely a casualty of that. It is my hope that films that are their own stories, with unique stories and messages continue to be produced, but as long as our wallets decide they would rather see what is familiar, original ideals will become a much rarer occurrence to see on the silver screen. This film is very good and I hope that it ends up having commercial success to match its quality.
I would give “Booksmart” an underappreciated 8.5 out of 10
Directed By: Olivia Wilde
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Victoria Ruesga, Mason Gooding, Billie Lourd, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers, Skyler Gisondo, Eduardo Franco, Austin Crute, Noah Garvin
Runtime: 1 Hour and 42 Minutes