Booksmart turns the page on teen girl stereotypes

Movie Review: Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s feature debut looks at coming-of-age formula through a distinctly female lens, where acceptance and affirmation don’t rely on stunts or smashing a beer can into your forehead — but the enduring loyalty of a best friend.

Booksmart

3.5/5

Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis

Directed by: Olivia Wilde

Running time: 1 hr 42 mins

Rating: Restricted

By Katherine Monk

If we’re going to call Booksmart the girl-version of Superbad, then it’s worth a moment to meditate on the meaning of each title. The boy movie that starred Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill was a coming-of-age movie about two guys looking to lose their virginity and be, like James Brown sang, Superbad.

This new girl movie from director Olivia Wilde starring two equally goofy teens is also a coming-of-age story about engaging in new experiences, but the comic emphasis rests in an entirely different word: Booksmart.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are the two academic achievers at their Los Angeles high school. They studied hard, stayed home on weekends, and shunned the shenanigans that typically haunt the hallways of high school life. The work paid off. Both of them are about to embark on their life dream. For Molly, that means heading off to Yale with hopes of one day becoming a Supreme Court justice. For Amy, that means heading to Africa before beginning an Ivy League life.

Brilliant futures await, and that gives them a comforting sense of superiority, until Molly discovers a bunch of her peers are also headed off to prestigious institutions. Peers that partied on weekends when Amy and Molly were preparing for SATs and volunteering. Molly suddenly feels she may have sacrificed too much fun, propelling her to do something drastic: She decides to catch up on four years of undone debauchery in a single night.

Brilliant futures await, and that gives them a comforting sense of superiority, until Molly discovers a bunch of her peers are also headed off to prestigious institutions…  Molly suddenly feels she may have sacrificed too much fun, propelling her to do something drastic: She decides to catch up on four years of undone debauchery in a single night.

Lassoing Amy along for the ride by dangling the promise of a potential encounter with her girl crush, the two BFFs put on their party clothes and head into the hazy glitter of the Los Angeles night. The only problem is, they don’t know where to go. So begins the night of random events and strange coincidences that make up movies such as these.

What separates a classic coming-of-age movie from the glossy dross is how closely you can stick to real emotions while amping up the ambient madness. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a classic because we believed in those people, and their relationship to one another. The same goes for Superbad or Risky Business or any John Hughes movie.

What separates a classic coming-of-age movie from the glossy dross is how closely you can stick to real emotions while amping up the ambient madness.

The hyperbolic background is really only serving the purpose of those personal dynamics, giving them a sympathetic context for the seemingly life or death dramas that unfold within them. A good director synchronizes the emotional upheavals so they feel authentic to the given moment. A bad director pins them up on a wall where you can’t miss it, like a bland inspirational poster with kittens greeting you at the doctor’s office.

Putting the right message in the right place is critical, and Wilde has a natural sense about every octave change in the smart script from Katie Silberman, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Susanna Fogel. She also gives the talented twosome in Dever and Feldstein a soft place to land in every scene.

Remember, this is taking place in a female world. Women don’t feel a need to smash empty beer cans into their foreheads. Nor do they crave life-threatening risk to feel sexually desirable. Women use different strategies of communication, and they generally involve words.

For the viewer, this means we get to watch two smart girls talk about big themes through a very focused lens. One that lacks broad experience, but picks up on every nuance of language and intent with the scrutinizing mind of a forensic investigator.

Remember, this is taking place in a female world. Women don’t feel a need to smash empty beer cans into their foreheads. Nor do they crave life-threatening risk to feel sexually desirable. Women use different strategies of communication, and they generally involve words.

These young women are looking for answers. They want to know if the meaning of life is all about losing yourself in books, or embracing the moment. Or, perhaps, a wise mix of both. You just don’t know until you try, so most of this movie involves Amy and Molly doing things they’ve never done before. Like go out.

It’s all pretty fun to watch, because through their eyes, a drunken teen party is a novelty. So is being high on hallucinogens, which results in a rather inspired bit of claymation. Just about anyone will find something to relate to in this parade of well-crafted dramatic floats, because they are all detailed depictions of an overall vibe — whether it’s the loser party, the awkward sexual encounter, the surreal Uber ride, or the psychedelic vision of your head on a Barbie’s body.

There’s a lot to process. Yet, Wilde’s ride wouldn’t be complete without the full roller coaster of emotions, and to her credit, she doesn’t pander. There are no gratuitously scripted moments of teary revelations and secret jealousies, only love — and fear.

In boy movies, it’s always about overcoming a fear of copulation and performance. But for women, it’s really the fear of losing your best friend, and a relationship that defined your existence in the universe outside the home. It’s a real fear, too, because it’s often what happens.

Booksmart squeezes that looming sense of loss into every scene, pulling us back in time, before the stars in our eyes faded behind a milky cloud of cynicism, and the only world we knew was contained within four walls lined with lockers, stewing in Axe-covered angst.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, May 24, 2019

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Review: Booksmart

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Summary

3.5Score

Olivia Wilde’s feature debut looks at coming-of-age formula through a distinctly female lens, where acceptance and affirmation don’t rely on stunts or smashing a beer can into your forehead -- but the enduring loyalty of a best friend. -- Katherine Monk

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