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Booksmart

Posted May 25, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Booksmart stems from an old familiar premise: A couple of straightlaced overachieving teenagers go out to an epic party fueled by sex and drugs. Thus our main characters achieve meteoric highs and catastrophic lows like they’ve never known through their neatly ordered life. Moreover, they learn that there is no change within their comfort zones and any kind of significant growth requires doing something that scares them and may possibly even hurt them.

All of this is standard material for any coming-of-age story. But this one differs in many crucial ways.

To start with, there’s the nature of our protagonists, two inseparable best friends. Kaitlyn Dever plays Amy, who’s very outspoken about gender politics and sexual equality, but otherwise shy and socially awkward by nature. Moreover, Amy is openly gay, and the filmmakers are clear in treating this as a simple matter of fact without making a huge deal or journey of discovery about it. Sure, there’s a running subplot about Amy’s attempts at losing her virginity to an unrequited crush (Ryan, played by Victoria Ruesga), but that’s standard teenager coming-of-age material very tastefully portrayed through a homosexual lens. Impressive.

Our other main character is Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein. Molly is the class president, a raging Social Justice Warrior with wildly ambitious political dreams. She’s got a massive chip on her shoulder and her vocal commitment to feminist ideals is absolute. Molly is by far the most arrogant and forceful of our two protagonists, so she and her fragile pride are typically what drive the plot forward.

Comparing this movie with the countless coming-of-age movies we’ve seen in recent memory, I’d put this one somewhere in between Love, Simon and Blockers. From the former, we have heightened characters grounded by an authentic and heartfelt portrayal of growing up queer in our modern, online, more enlightened time. From the latter, we have a tale of lifelong girlfriends on a wild pre-graduation spree, grounded by sex-positive feminist leanings (but without any parents present, mercifully). So really, we get the best of both worlds here.

The filmmakers are good enough and subtle enough to send the message that kids today have to grow up so much faster, with greater understanding and compassion for others, because of internet access, cell phone usage, etc. To say nothing of growing social acceptance toward recreational marijuana and casual sex. The standard ’80s/’90s stereotypes have fallen out of favor, now that the jock is going to Marvel movies, the bookworm is on his way to making millions in the tech business, and so on.

As an unexpected result, the old standards for success don’t necessarily apply anymore. A college degree doesn’t automatically mean success, any more than a 2.0 GPA necessarily means failure. Extracurriculars can potentially be far more important, especially if it leads to an athletic scholarship, a job straight out of high school, or connections toward some other college or career path.

Amy and Molly focused 100 percent of their energy into their schoolwork, and it got them prestigious college placements awaiting after graduation. Yet their classmates only dedicated a fraction of that effort, and their post-graduation prospects are just as great. How did that happen, and why does it piss off Molly so much? Well, a huge part of it is that even though teenagers today grew up at this pace, the world is still changing faster than they can keep up with.

These kids may be so much more enlightened and open-minded than their forebears, but they are still teenagers. They still think they know better than everybody else, especially when they’re right at the cusp of adulthood, riding high on graduation day with no idea what changes and challenges await them. So we’re still going to get cliques and petty drama. We’re still going to get snap judgments and jealous feuds and superficial insults. Early on in the film, Molly — who prides herself on being such a militant sex-positive feminist! — slut-shames a female classmate. Try and wrap your head around that hypocrisy.

The previous generation had jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, punks, bookworms, and so on. This generation has gays, stoners, douchebags, wealthy spoiled assholes, sex addicts, and so on. The labels may be different, but they are nonetheless labels. They are shallow stereotypes that everyone at school must fit neatly into, with no regard for whatever else the person may be.

Even as Amy and Molly and their SJW ilk fight for minorities and the marginalized to be recognized as humans, they only see their fellow classmates as racial and sexual identities without recognizing them as humans. Of course, that’s in large part because Amy and Molly bury themselves so deeply in their schoolwork and their social media memes that they’ve never found the time to really connect with their classmates.

Thus the filmmakers submit that partying is important to teenagers because it helps them learn more about each other and themselves. Furthermore, it teaches them to overcome the fears and prejudices that keep them from becoming wiser and more courageous in the pursuit of a better world. Those are important lessons for open-minded people of all ages, and portraying them through a coming-of-age story was frankly genius.

This is all great stuff. Trouble is, it’s all limited to the first and last thirds of the film. Aside from a couple of laughs and a show-stopping animated sequence, the second act is pure filler. Our main characters are stuck running on a hamster wheel for something like half an hour until they finally make it to the big party, and pretty much everything they do within that half-hour ceases to matter when they finally get to the party.

This causes problems with the character development in a big way. A huge case in point is Hope (Diana Silvers), a counter-culture loner who plays such a pivotal role in the third act that the filmmakers could have and should have done a better job of defining her in the hour previous. Another example is Jared (Skyler Gisondo), one of the movie’s most central examples of how people are so much more than first impressions and superficial stereotypes. And it doesn’t work because the entire movie leans so hard into his hopeless douchebag image, playing it for one laugh after another, so any deeper revelations about the character come off as wildly inconsistent and it doesn’t work.

Instead of using the second act to develop these crucial supporting characters and smooth out their development arcs, we’ve got a hammy, useless, overdone sequence establishing Alan and George (respectively played by Austin Crute and Noah Galvin) as a couple of flamboyantly homosexual drama queens. That’s not even getting started on Gigi (Billie Lourd), who appears absolutely everywhere for no reason at all, consistently high off her ass. That’s the joke. She’s a completely useless comic relief character in a movie that was already funny enough without her.

Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut here, with a script from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. All four of those writers are seasoned comedy veterans, and Wilde shows a preternatural knack for comic timing. It certainly helps that Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein have extraordinary chemistry and they carry the movie beautifully. Then of course we have prominent appearances by Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, and Jason Sudeikis (Olivia Wilde’s longtime fiance himself), all appearing just long enough to do what they do best and elevate the picture. I was also very fond of Diana Silvers, which makes it all the more frustrating that the picture couldn’t find more to do with her.

Wilde and her cast are more than capable of making the film an effective comedy. Unfortunately, Wilde clearly likes close-up shots. She really, really likes close-up shots. This gets to be a royal pain in the ass during conversation scenes, in which the editor has to ping-pong between the characters with a cut every three seconds. Even during the dance sequence, shot with an admittedly impressive long take, the characters are only shot from the waist up. It gets very repetitive, and the editing can get distracting.

Ultimately, Booksmart is a promising start from director Olivia Wilde and her cast of young actors. Supported by a crew of solid female comedy writers and the occasional appearance from battle-tested comedy actors, the movie succeeds at getting laughs. And even if many of those laughs come from characters and situations exaggerated to an outrageous degree, the film is still grounded enough to make authentic and important statements about growing up in a modern, more inclusive world.

It’s a movie about how people are deeper than stereotypes, while milking those same stereotypes for comedy, without coming off as hypocritical. That’s the best compliment I can give this picture. Check this one out.