Booksmart Is the Coming-of-Age Movie I Needed in High School – Review #40

I make a concerted effort to not read other reviews before writing my own, lest my opinions be colored by those of people more intelligent than I, but a film-podcast Facebook group I’m a part of pointed me to the genuinely bad take that is Richard Brody’s New Yorker review of actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. I often disagree with Brody, which is fine, but this piece genuinely bothered me, because it fails to do what Glenn Kenny told a group of aspiring film critics – of which I was one – should be the backbone of their writing: talk about what the thing is, not what you think it should be.

It’s bad if anyone does it, but it’s almost painful to read the 71-year-old Brody lecture Booksmart about high school – tell it that it fails to accurately represent *high school*. Which is so obviously ridiculous that saying it out loud basically serves as its own mic drop. Equally bizarre is the opening-paragraphs rant about how the film fails by not explicitly mentioning Trump the way it implicitly mentions powerful, admirable women like Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elizabeth Warren. Again, it is such a self-evidently stupid thing to say, as though the best part of Mean Girls – to which he compares Booksmart unfavorably – was the one where Lindsay Lohan went on a fifteen-minute rant about the injustices of the Bush administration.

The reason to never talk about what a thing “should” be is that, ultimately, your idealized version doesn’t matter. And a 71-year-old man’s wants for the depiction of a teenage girl’s high school experience could not possibly matter less.

No one who goes into Booksmart is going to see this version with anti-Trump monologues and Mean Girls archetypes, so blathering on about them is genuinely unhelpful to the discourse. And in any case, we should all be thankful, because that movie would suck.

Hello anyone, everyone, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me A Guy Who Doesn’t Actually Think Old People Should Be Canceled, and today I’m talking about Booksmart.

I mentioned to the same colleague referenced in the introduction of my Pokemon Detective Pikachu review that I was a big fan of this film – spoiler, I guess – and he said “Of course you’d say that. You’ve been doing this for literal years. Walking over here –  Edge of Seventeen is the best movie ever! Blockers is the best movie ever! and now this. Come back when you see one of these movies you don’t like.”

So… probably never gonna see him again

Because although I have never been a teenage girl, I often relate to their coming-of-age narratives more than I do teenage boys’. The aforementioned films, alongside some deeper but still fairly recent cuts like Detention and Girl, Asleep do genuinely rank among my favorite films. I just really connect with them on a fundamental level (though my reaction to Eighth Grade, during which I sided pretty heavily with Ellie’s father because HE WAS DOING HIS BEST, suggests that that may be changing).  

And the fact that I can so quickly name all those recent-ish releases is a sign that this back half of the 2010s has marked the beginning of a new era of R-rated teen comedies – now, finally, told from girls’ perspectives.

We’re 15 years removed from Mean Girls, which remains a seminal film but was not, of course, rated R. And that film focused more on overall social dynamics than this newer breed. The way different groups interact will never not be a part of a movie about high school – but so often they are a central focus when to a lot of people they aren’t that big a deal.

Booksmart goes hard in the other direction by arguing that people can’t be typed at all, that they are complicated and we need to stop pretending otherwise.

On her last day of high school, not-very-nice protagonist/class president Molly is forcibly put into proximity with many of the classmates who she has been judging out of hand for years.

And she learns, inevitably, that not everything she thinks she knows about these people is true, and even the stuff that is can’t define them (except the theater kids, who are exactly who you think they are #highschooltheatreREPRESENT).

I found it really interesting, though, to see how people reacted to her. Again, we’re not in a world where people pour milkshakes on losers or leave dead animals in their locker. People react effectively in kind: treating her how she treats them.

Hell, even the one moment that could be seen as this sort of cliché drama, where Molly is in a bathroom stall as three of her peers talk about her, is undercut by one of them openly expressing his attraction to her, if not her personality.

When she confronts them, she tries to go personal, telling them they will never amount to anything, and she is metaphorically smacked down by the most scathing of realizations: that she and her best friend Amy aren’t the only capital-s Smart people in the school. The girl collectively slut-shamed as “AAA” is going to Yale too.

And everyone else of significance to the narrative is going to good schools too, driving Molly into a bit of an existential crisis because she feels like she’s wasted her time and her life: to make up for it, she needs to finally go to a high-school party. Specifically, the party being held by her bro-y vice president, Nick. Hilarity ensues.

Like Molly, I wasn’t particularly pleasant in high school, and I harbored those same deep-seated judgments about people I knew nothing about.

Some of the quote-unquote popular girls who I looked at as Dumb Blondes worked themselves to the bone to get straight As. And they went to Georgetown and Cornell and other schools that you have probably heard of, because they worked for it. And then some people didn’t work that hard and still went to those schools.

And I didn’t go to those schools. If you’ve heard of my alma mater recently, it’s because they were the site of a sex cult now being turned into a movie by Mark Whalberg.

Booksmart is a movie that a decade ago would have been a slap in the face I would have needed but not yet appreciated. Really, I was pretty terrible. Like Molly but with less ambition. So, just mean.

But for all of the things folks get judged for in this film – and it’s a lot, there is significance in the big thing that no one is judged for here that still inspires far too much judgement everywhere: Amy is gay. So are other people. And it’s fine.

Blockers has a whole subplot around Sam’s concerns that her sexuality will result in estrangement from her friends and family. While these fears turn out to be unfounded and it is an emotionally impactful arc, it’s also nice to just see a story where a teen girl is out and has been for years and so what, dude?

Although she’s unsure if her crush, Ryan, feels the same, that whole thing is played in exactly the same way as any other “Do they like me?!” story from any other teen comedy ever. And that’s genuinely powerful. A friend of mine posted on Twitter about how moving it was to see the queer gaze in a mainstream film, and though I can’t say I was moved by that, even I could see its significance.

There are, of course, infinite darker timelines of the same events. Amy’s parents are Christians who aren’t super psyched about the whole thing… but they love their daughter regardless, and that discomfort is played for comedy, not drama. And halle-freaking-lujah for that.

That’s not what this is about. As with everyone else, Amy is much more than her sexuality.

The corollary to Stop Making Assumptions About Other People is Stop Making Things About You, and Booksmart is just as interested in that, exploring it through that central friendship between Amy and Molly. It is genuinely adorable how much the two clearly care for each other… and it’s a little disheartening how much Molly feels she needs to control Amy’s life.

Particularly disheartening for me because Oh Shoot, I’ve Been That too. Amy is pretty content with the life that she has and has had; Molly feels hers has been wasted and that, by extension, Amy’s has too. But she’s projecting that: hard. Amy would have been happy staying home with her parents’ pun-arific congraduations feast. But Molly wasn’t going to let that happen.

This comes to a head in a truly beautiful moment that makes me very curious to see the film’s script – I want to know if it was presented as written, or if that was a bold-as-hell directorial decision.

In either case, I want to commend Olivia Wilde on what she has done here. Actors trying their hand at directing can be something of a mixed bag, but I can’t think of many recent examples as confident as Wilde’s. It’s shocking that this is a debut… but that actually seems to be another part of this new wave: Blockers was Kay Cannon’s debut and The Edge of Seventeen Kelly Fremon Craig’s. And though they’re drama more than comedy, Eighth Grade and Ladybird were Bo Burnham’s first feature and Greta Gerwig’s first solo effort, respectively. These new talents are bursting onto the scene with these amazing depictions of how people in general and girls in particular are coming-of-age in the modern world, and it’s wonderful.

So I’m genuinely saddened by the fact that Booksmart underperformed opening weekend. Every time a good, unique movie like this or, say, Annihilation fails, we get more live action Disney remakes. Films like Booksmart need to succeed so that this new era can truly flourish in the Hollywood system, but Booksmart itself needs to succeed because it’s a movie that people should see and whose lessons we can all learn something from. While I will openly admit that I relate to Molly a bit too much for my liking and so her lessons were more explicitly mine, damn near everyone has at least a little bit of that judgment inside and can get something valuable from the way Booksmart breaks those judgements down.

And even if they don’t? It’s freaking hilarious too.

Nine Point Zero out of Ten

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.