Olivia Wilde's directorial debut Booksmart is a raucous teen comedy set in a highly fantasized version of suburban Southern California. The fact that the film was directed by a woman, was written by four women, and is told entirely from the perspective of two female characters immediately sets it apart from the typical teen comedy, but what is curious is how closely it hews to the conventions of a genre made famous by adolescent male hijinks-from American Graffiti (1973), to Porky's (1982), to American Pie (1999), and Superbad (2007), the latter of which it most closely resembles in plot, tone, and sentiment. It doesn't so much turn the tables on a traditional male-centric genre as it simply appropriates its characteristics and gives them a modern female spin.
The protagonists are Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), best friends and fellow overachievers who have spent every minute of their high school existence working for high grades and the best college admissions, rather than social acceptance (they have fake IDs, but they're to get into the 24-hour university library). They are both clearly marked liberals and feminists-Molly has photos of Michelle Obama and RGB in her bedroom and Amy's aging Volvo has a Warren 2020 sticker on it-but like a lot of liberals, their compassion for their fellow humans is often abstract and intellectual, as they show nothing but contempt for their fellow students, who they see as misguided partiers and slackers who are decidedly beneath them. Well, as it turns out, those partiers and slackers have more of a future than Molly and Amy assumed, and when Molly discovers that some of them will be going to Ivy League universities, she becomes convinced that she and Amy did high school all wrong. They could have studied and partied; they could have achieved academic success and had a social life outside their own hermetic dyad.
So, how does one solve that problem? According to the dictates of the genre, the answer is to attend a blow-out night-of-graduation party being hosted by Nick (Mason Gooding), the class's handsome, but seemingly vacuous vice-president (Molly, of course, is president, but she actually takes her responsibilities seriously). Molly, who has big eyes and a wide smile and physical and emotional intensity that ranges from enthusiasm to near mania, is intent that she and Amy will pack four years of missed social opportunities into a single night. Amy, who is smaller and more reserved, is less assured that this is the answer, but she goes along with it because that is what she tends to do. She is also tempted because she knows that the party will be attended by Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), a tattooed skater girl of ambiguous sexual orientation on whom Amy has a crush (Amy "came out" in the tenth grade, but has yet to have had any kind of same-sex experience).
And that, in a nutshell, is the plot. We follow Molly and Amy on their journey to find the party and then indulge all that they feel they have been missing, which we know is really just a ploy to give them a journey of self-discovery in which they will learn that all the students they spent so many years looking down on are actually human beings with previously unrecognized levels of depth, as well as test their friendship and learn a few things about themselves. The films works by sheer force of will-not just the first-rate performances by Feldstein (last seen as the best friend of the eponymous character in Lady Bird, a much better teen comedy) and Dever, but because Wilde commits so fully to the premise and tone, refusing to back down from all its absurdities.
This is both a strength and a weakness, as the film's script relies heavily on stock teen characters who don't feel at all like real teenagers; rather, they feel imported from some alternate comic-fantasy universe. (In interviews, Wilde has name-checked both The Breakfast Club  and Dazed and Confused  as totems she wished to emulate, but they are exactly the opposite as they adhere with almost fetishistic detail to the mundane realities of teen life in the '80s and '70s, respectively.) There are recognizable emotional registers, particularly jealousy and insecurity, but the secondary characters are all comic types that never expand beyond their limited bounds. Some of them are enjoyable to watch, particularly the absurdly wealthy Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Gigi (Billie Lourd), who act like freaks who buy popularity because it is all they know how to do, but others are grating, particularly two flamboyant theater queens who at one point stage an opulent murder-mystery dinner. The broadness of some of the character comedy feels lazy even when it works, as does the film's world of immense wealth and privilege (Molly lives in an econo apartment and is clearly not wealthy, but we get no background on her family or history). The use of broad character types is hardly unknown to the genre-Amy Heckerling did something similar in Clueless (1995)-but Wilde seems to want us to invest in parts of the story on an emotional level that ] conflicts with its fantasy-comic world. The emotions ultimately win out not because of Wilde's dedication to that world, but in spite of it.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Annapurna Pictures
Overall Rating: (3)
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