This time of year sees thousands of teenagers up and down the country finishing their exams before finding out if they’ve gotten into university, making it the perfect time for Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart to be released.
Starring Kaitlyn Denver as Amy and Beanie Feldstein as Molly, the film follows the two girls on the day before their High School graduation as they try to show their peers that being smart isn’t their only personality trait. A hilarious stream of events and increasingly elaborate plans make this a fun movie that is sure to become a classic.
Poking fun at traditional high school films that separate the students into distinct cliques, Booksmart quickly demonstrates that teenagers are capable of being more than two dimensional stereotypes – shocking, I know. Instead of presenting typical jocks or nerds or skater kids, main character Molly has the startling revelation that you can go to parties and still get into a good college. Resultantly, she and her best friend Amy become determined to show the rest of their classmates that they can be fun by attending Nick’s party (played by Mason Gooding).
Most films in the ‘high school’ genre are pretty heavy handed with messages about accepting people as multifaceted instead of trying to put them into boxes. In one of the opening scenes, Molly gives a self assured speech about how she’s better than a group of kids calling her boring for just studying in high school instead of going to parties and such. Yet her narrow minded view of the world crumbles around her when Annabelle (Molly Gordon) points out that she got into the same school as Molly. Instead of being an empowering moment of self confidence, Molly’s speech is exposed as belittling and, quite frankly, mean. Although this film is no exception to promoting a positive message for its teen audience, the arguably unique twist is that the film isn’t afraid to make its main character the stereotypical ‘mean girl’. Rather than the film being about other people needing to change to accept the main character, it is the main character that has to get down off her high horse and learn to be more tolerant of others.
On a similar vein, the film undermines a few other traditional tropes from the genre. For starters, the ‘satellite’ friend – the best friend of the main character, in this case Amy – isn’t there simply to prop up the main character or to support her from the sidelines. When Amy is isolated and away from Molly, her own personality shines through. In the space of one evening she transforms from Molly’s friend to the class hero who takes the fall for the rest of them at the party. Secondly, in place of a ‘make-over moment’ when the nerdy girl puts on mascara and suddenly become hot, when Molly and Amy are getting ready for the party they end up wearing matching jumpsuits that are modest and adorably dorky. They don’t sacrifice who they are for the sake of fashion. And finally, even once they’ve had a second make-over courtesy of Miss Fine (Jessica Williams), it turns out that the girls didn’t have to change at all to fit in – everyone at the party is just happy that they came, again showing that whatever exclusion the girls felt was a result of their own actions rather than their peers.
Denver and Feldstein are the heart of this movie – their on screen chemistry is electric, and the audience readily believes that they’ve been friends all their lives. Helped by a witty script that feels organic, the two actresses make the movie shine. Another stand out member of the cast for me was Billie Lourd as Gigi, a thoroughly weird girl who is shamelessly herself and provides some of the film’s best comedic moments. In a film written by four women and directed by another, it is no wonder that the female characters are not restricted to overdone cliches and are instead allowed to be complex people who grow throughout the film.
I also think the film excels in LGBTQ+ representation. Amy’s sexuality is accepted and openly encouraged throughout, and Amy can talk as candidly about her crushes as any teenage girl in a high-school movie. Wilde also subverts some more of the genre’s stereotypes with Amy: the ‘gay best friend’ is a woman, and the best friend isn’t secretly in love with the protagonist. Moreover, when Amy has a sexual encounter, it isn’t needlessly explicit – what’s happening is obvious without being hyper-sexualised, nor does it feel like a scene for the male gaze. The scene is treated with respect, and the scene focusses on the personal and emotional significance of the event rather than the event itself.
All in all, Booksmart is a cute movie that celebrates female friendships and valorises acceptance. Whereas usual high school films have the main character change to suit the expectations of the student body, Molly alters her view and instead grows in a way that is healthy and will actually be useful in later life. My hope for this film is that it becomes the high school coming-of-age film that defines this generation.