Often times, high school movies have a tendency to fall prisoner to the moment, unable to truly look forward at life beyond high school. And at that time in our lives, most of us felt that way too. In a lot of ways Booksmart is no different, cringefully indulging in every emotion, every sentiment, of high school’s ultimately anticlimactic reality. Though when it matters most, this is also the rare hormonal teen comedy smart enough to remind us that high school is, indeed, just the beginning.
Helmed by Olivia Wilde in her directorial debut, Booksmart follows best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), on the last day of high school. The two of them are viewed as pretentious by their classmates. The popular kids don’t like them and the hipsters write them off as outcasts. While they seem all alone at their school, they do have a really close relationship with their young, cool teacher, Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams), much to the detest of their peers. This will come back around later, because that’s how this movie operates.
Throughout their high school years, Molly and Amy vowed not to party or have too much fun in order to earn good grades and get accepted into their colleges of choice. Only they soon discover, thanks to an effectively palpable bathroom scene early on, that their more popular classmates who they’d assumed were aimless losers partying their lives away every weekend, were also accepted into the same exclusive schools like Yale and Stanford.
With their worlds turned upside-down, the girls realize they could’ve been having fun the last four years and still earned their necessary good grades. So they vow to make up for all of that in one rule-breaking night. This opportunity presents itself when popular kid Nick (Mason Gooding) plans on throwing one of those epic end-of-the-year house parties that seem to exist only in the movies. The only problem is the girls don’t know the address since nobody attending the party likes them. Basically the entire class is going to be there, and now they’re determined to do whatever it takes to find the location and prove to everyone they’re more than just pretentious sticks in the mud.
On the surface, Booksmart seems an awful lot like your typical teen sex comedy, only one fronted with females instead of the usual dude-bros. In fact, publicity for this film really wants us to know that this gender switch (both in front of and behind the camera) lends itself to a different kind of teen sex comedy, one focusing more on not just the quirky relationships between the leads but how they deal with familiar feelings of alienation, budding sexuality, and the fear of being alone.
The way the story introduces seemingly everyone in school feels more like a TV show than a film, which means setting up new characters feels a little forced at times. Secondary characters are reestablished over and over again through much of the first act, playing them off as a generalization of the entire school for the sole purpose of being able to reference them continuously throughout the story.
The biggest issue here is the generalization of a popular circle of classmates as the whole identity of their school. High school classes usually have hundreds of students, but we’re tricked into thinking this specific group represents the attitudes of the entire graduating class. The script tends to focus on Molly and Amy’s envy on a very small and specific group of classmates who party hard every weekend, yet curiously still get straight A’s. We all knew one or two of these people in school, but this movie presents that particular phenomenon as the norm when in reality if you screwed around instead of studying you could pretty much kiss Stanford or Yale goodbye.
Most people have to work hard to get into prestigious schools. And if not in high school, excessive partying can definitely catch up with you in college. While you can still have some fun along the way, Booksmart presents it as all or nothing.
One reason why the girls want an amazing last night is because they regret not having more fun in school, now determined to pack four years of fun into one night before it’s too late. Another reason is because they care how everyone in their class perceives them, which comes off as misdirected as they’re unlikely to see most of these people again. Booksmart tries to do in one night what, in real life, can unfortunately take a couple years to accomplish.
But that’s all part of that limited high school mindset. At that point in your life, peer approval can seem like your whole world. It’s just odd Molly and Amy never sought it prior to this one night considering how much they seem to care now, but teenagers often see their world in such narrow and limited focus.
Also, the people Molly and Amy are envious of aren’t appealing at all. In fact, nobody is. Apparently, this entire school seems entirely absent of anyone who appears grounded. Do kids really act like this nowadays? No wonder older folks have such a distaste for millennials. Are they even millennials? I don’t know. I think I’m just old.
Booksmart is a film about breaking down barriers between you and your enemies, real or imagined. In this case, classmates you spend more time with than your actual parents, yet still know little or nothing about. Here is a movie trying to ground itself in reality, yet filled with unrealistic dialogue and characters that play more to stereotypes than nuance–albeit new versions of those stereotypes. And yet, what makes the film so brilliant is how the filmmakers are able to successfully mine for great moments, finding unique situations over and over again that truly hit hard. Despite its tendency to oversimplify, this is a fun movie that stays with you. Relatable on any level, no matter who you were in high school.
Originally published on June 1, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/booksmart-2019/