Booksmart: Now teenage girls have their own Superbad. Some of them, anyway

In Booksmart, there are some gems, but it needs more realism and less performative wokeness.

There’s something about Olivia Wilde that has always kept us, the viewers, at arm’s length.

Maybe it’s her lantern jaw and cheekbones for days. Maybe it’s because she looks like she’s crammed full of supermodel DNA, or because she’s related to Sir George Cockburn, 10th Baronet. Maybe it’s an impression formed when she was on House portraying Thirteen, a male gaze-y bisexual character whose queerness seemed to exist so intrigued male coworkers could raise their eyebrows.

She’s an activist. She volunteers in disaster zones. She dresses down. She probably writes in a dog-eared notebook. But there’s always been something about Olivia Wilde that makes it hard to believe that she can, you know, hang out with us.

Whatever that layer of unreality is, it’s present in Booksmart, Wilde’s feature film directorial debut. Booksmart is high school as envisioned by an attractive Hollywood woman in a much higher income bracket than the rest of us, and as a result, it’s hard to really relate to it.

Booksmart stars Beanie Feldstein, who was such a pleasure in Lady Bird that it’s hard to believe there could be a bad film with her in it. She plays Molly, a class president with a bedroom full of pictures of liberal women rolemodels like Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Kaitlyn Dever portrays her friend Amy, who came out in tenth grade but has yet to explore her sexuality – with someone else, at least. It’s the night before graduation, and the two realize they’ve focused too much on homework and never really partied. They set out to find the most happening party of their peer group, and they spend most of the two hours trying to find it.

This film, despite its diversity attempts, has privilege for days.

The film’s tone veers between Lady Bird and Superbad, and spends most of its time in the latter category. It’s gentler and smarter than that, and so are its protagonists, but it has similar ingredients. Where Superbad was laugh-out-loud funny, though, Booksmart‘s foibles are mostly frustrating. So many of the conflicts could be solved by the characters just asking simple questions. How else to explain a moment at a party when one friend approaches the other with information any reasonable person would just share, right then and there, but instead says “Malala?”

I have to wonder, too, how much of the utopia portrayed in Booksmart exists. High school is getting easier for queer students. There are positive spaces now, and more liberal attitudes toward diversity. In Booksmart, though, there are no harsh words to be found – not from students, not from teachers, not even from Amy’s religious parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte), who smile and wave when they think their daughter is going to have sex. The friends talk to each other in detail – and I do mean in detail – about the techniques they use to masturbate. The characters convene in all-gender washrooms, some using urinals while others lean against the wall nearby and chat about college. (Does this happen? Someone tell me in the comments.)

The side characters seem to be quirky for the sake of it, a mishmash of bellowed lines and leopard coats, but it’s hard to figure out who they are. Jared (Skyler Gisondo), for example, wears a shirt with his own face on it, and is rich but for some reason also drives for Lyft. On the subject of money, all of the characters seem to have it. They’re set to attend amazing, expensive schools, but there’s no acknowledgment of how anyone plans to pay for this. No one has a job, and no one ever talks about money at all. This film, despite its diversity attempts, has privilege for days. That’s not to say that Superbad doesn’t, but this film makes an effort to show how laid back and woke everyone is, so it’s a little more obvious.

The film has some merit. We need more movies about smart girls, ones who’d rather have 24-hour access to a library than punch a tower of pizza boxes. It’s a pleasure to see a slow-mo crush scene between two girls, framed in the same standard manner of other coming-of-age films. Booksmart is aware of these comparisons, and it knows what it’s doing.

There’s also a lovely montage of Amy underwater, where information is revealed through watching people from the shoulders down, that hasn’t been done this well since Let the Right One In (or perhaps Eighth Grade, which is so relatable it hurts). The doll scene slays. And Jessica Williams, who plays a teacher everyone fan girls over, should be in everything, ever. Now her, we can hang out with.

“What I don’t want to read is, ‘I’m glad that exists.'”

There are a lot of people out there who love Booksmart. There are people who will embrace it. It might even become a cult classic. Watching it though, I thought about a recent Wesley Morris talk I attended. Is it enough, someone asked, for films about a demographic to exist? Shouldn’t we be happy to have them? Might that supersede criticism? No, Morris said. “What I don’t want to read is, ‘I’m glad that exists.'” There are also people asking when a version of this with non-white girls might land in a Cineplex, which is a totally valid question.

Wilde recently tweeted about how the standard Hollywood fare was thumping Booksmart, which was released on Netflix in France on the same day as American theatres. Booksmart made $8.7 million its opening weekend, Aladdin $112 million. “We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support,” Wilde tweeted. “Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”

But maybe, if it doesn’t connect with the audience it seeks, there are other reasons why. 2.5/5

Booksmart (2019)
Does it pass the Beschdel Test?: Definitely.
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudros, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Skyler Gisondo, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, and Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher’s daughter).
Directed by: Olivia Wilde.
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman.

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