Booksmart: Molly and Amy Featured

If you are anything like me, you have a knee-jerk distaste for headlines like the one above. Sorry I indulged in it for this article, but the internet is what it is. So I’ll just answer. Nah, BOOKSMART is not merely a gender-swapped SUPERBAD. Does that mean the film is good though? Well, let’s talk about that, shall we?

Booksmart: Amy
Kaitlyn Dever relates without a bit of awkwardness in a moment from BOOKSMART. (Courtesy of United Artists)

The Idea Behind BOOKSMART

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends and the class overachievers. They have spent the past four years predominantly hanging out with one another. They have forgone parties, substances, and pleasures of the flesh to achieve entrance to their dream colleges. Plus, of course, to continue on Molly’s very strict plan for their future. We quickly see they get way more excited about scoring their teacher Ms. Fine’s (Jessica Williams) contact information than any of their classmates’ signatures in their yearbook.

However, Molly learns that Triple A (Molly Gordon) — the Scarlet Letter of the school — Nick (Mason Gooding) — the party boy Vice President to her serious President — and Tanner (Nico Hiraga) —  skater boy ne’er-do-well – have all reached their top choice schools while still getting to have fun. It does not stop there, either. The living embodiment of the hedonistic one-percent, Gigi (Billie Lourd) has had to settle for her fifth choice… Harvard. Burnout Theo (Eduardo Franco) is skipping college… to code at Google. And on and on it goes. It turns out everyone achieved their dreams and had a blast doing it. Everyone except Molly and Amy that is.

With one last night as high schoolers, the duo attempt to find the party of the night and create one amazing night of memories before they become graduates.

Booksmart: Gigi
Billie Lourd got those stunnah shades in BOOKSMART. (Courtesy of United Artists)

Writing BOOKSMART

A quartet of writers, including two for whom BOOKSMART is their first feature, collaborated to bring the screenplay to life. However, despite Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman all having a hand in the writing, the script does not feel scattershot or Frankenstein-ed. It does feel of a singular vision and the movie feels stronger for that.

The foursome also manages to make the script feel of now without feeling instantly stamped with an expiration date. The film reflects the technology of the moment with its depiction of Lyft and social media — as well as the economic reality that teachers might need to double as Lyft drivers to make ends meet. It also captures the social realities of teenage life now — the breaking down of sexuality and gender expressions to allow for more fluidity, the seeming reduction in the classic clique divides of the ’80s and the evolution of what it means to be part of in and out groups.

Like a lot of teen movies that attempt to offer a sort of sociological survey of life in high school, the characterization does take a hit at times. Often, characters are given surprise moments of depth or sides of themselves that show up for a scene to make them more well-rounded. These efforts are often effective. Jared’s (Skyler Gisondo) reveal of his true heart’s desire under his hyper entertainer “let me buy your love” visage comes immediately to mind. However, a closer thought does often reveal these moments as just that: moments, not true character dimensions.

Booksmart: Amy's Parents
Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte give good parenting in a scene from BOOKSMART. (Courtesy of United Artists)

Casting the Leads of BOOKSMART

Having offered the criticism above, I must also assert that the leads are well-rounded. Part of that is the writing — minus a far too convenient salt of the Earth kind of fight between the two – but a lot must be given over to the actors.

Feldstein’s Molly has the wonderfully frenetic quality that comes not from movement but her inner self. She stays busy to distract herself from her own “base” wants: romance, sex, fun purely for fun’s sake. She has built walls of success against those wants because she fears to pursue them would bring rejection or, if achieved, would derail her very strict plan for the rest of her life. Her reaction when she has to live such fear is wonderful. It is such an understated bit of work, playing out in silence across her features. It confirms it hurt like hell and yet is not as bad as she imagined it would be.

Dever’s Amy is Molly’s less assertive, less sure partner-in-total lack of crime who proves, ironically, to be much more comfortable with her inner self. Out as a lesbian for years, crushing hard on the tattooed skateboard enthusiast Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), but scared of moving from attraction to action, she has spent those years largely infatuated from afar. Her body is like a foreign object to her, as her every movement and reaction to Molly’s sexualized talk, confirms.

However, as their quest wears on, we see that under the skin Amy knows who she is. She largely stayed away from teen hedonism not because she feared it like Molly but because she truly did not want it. At her core, her high school life largely reflected exactly what she wanted it to.

Booksmart: Molly
Beanie Feldstein strikes a pose in BOOKSMART. (Courtesy of United Artists)

Casting The Rest of the Callsheet

I have not yet mentioned Diana Silver, who plays senior mean girl Hope, but as she is becoming an increasing favorite of mine. Thus, I have to shout out her work here, another strong performance that is also decidedly different from her prior roles.

The “adult” players — Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy parents, Jason Sudeikis as the school principal, Williams as everyone’s cool teacher — are all uniformly funny in parts that you’ll wish were larger.

All the actors playing teens also acquit themselves well. I just want to shout Gisondo and Lourde, in particular, as being saddled with particularly bonkers roles and they both manage to find something wonderful beyond the cartoon for both.

Diana Silvers cracks a smile during graduation in BOOKSMART. (Courtesy of United Artists)

Directing BOOKSMART

Olivia Wilde’s directing debut here absolutely makes me excited to see what she does next. She especially excels when it comes to filming in small spaces. The murder mystery party and the big party set pieces both highlight this well, maximizing the space at the same time as letting viewers feel the claustrophobia of it when necessary.

Wilde also has some very good chops for the overblown and absurd. A scene involving the two leads becoming dolls and a brief dream ballet set amidst a house party demonstrate this well. Similarly, in a less silly, more profound way, Wilde blows up a leap into the pool to almost epic proportions. She captures the emotional scale of it over the “real” size of the moment.

Like a lot of debut efforts, it sometimes slacks off during the intermittent moments. You can almost feel the film gathering its energies for the splashier scenes. However, a one-last-wild-night film has a traditionally forgiving elasticity. Thus, most viewers will be unlikely to suffer much through the less ambitious stagings.

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein struggle to stay above it all in a scene in BOOKSMART. (Courtesy of United Artists)

That’s a Wrap

While some of the comparisons to SUPERBAD make a certain amount of sense — and certainly are more accurate than the comparisons to LADY BIRD or EIGHTH GRADE — it is a reductive assessment for both films. BOOKSMART deserves to be recognized as its own thing that is pursuing its own concerns. It may center the relationship of two long-time friends as SUPERBAD does but its goals and concerns differ wildly.

Regardless of whether you feel compelled to compare it to earlier films or not though, one thing is clear: BOOKSMART is a strong directorial debut for Olivia Wilde and another entry in the ever-expanding canon of smart films about teens on the edge of evolving and growing up.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *