A Love Letter to Booksmart
I think it’s fair to say that my ‘high-school’ experience (secondary school in England) was not similar to that of the characters’ in Booksmart. I didn’t cease from partying, like Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) do throughout school, to study in a 24-hour library, and my peers didn’t consist of a cringey rich boy desperately trying to buy people’s affection (Skyler Gisondo’s Jared), or his slightly unhinged hippy best friend (Billie Lourd’s Gigi). I didn’t have a teacher as effortlessly cool as Miss Fine (Jessica Williams), or a headteacher-turned-Lyft-driver that cruised around in a pimped-out car (Jason Sudeikis). But I, like most people who remember being a teenager, do know how carefree elation can turn to quiet heartbreak in a matter of seconds. Or suddenly realising that the future you had planned with your best friend won’t play out quite how you expected. Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, perfectly encapsulates the universal complications of coming-of-age, through one last night of hedonistic fun before the irrevocable change of leaving home and starting a new life as an adult.
In raving about Booksmart to my friends - a frequent occurrence now - I have offered the description of ‘a female Superbad’, a comparison that, while slightly lazy, is still valid. This is partly due to the overall one-long-night narrative structure; partly due to the gags which are more closely aligned to the gross-out comedy genre than the teen movie one. Of course, the comparison also stems from the presence of Beanie Feldstein, sister of Jonah Hill, whose role in Superbad launched his career twelve years ago. The siblings share the same wide-eyed enthusiasm and charisma, as well as their voices being eerily similar. But while Jonah’s Seth made crude gestures behind an unsuspecting Jules (Emma Stone) for laughs in Superbad, Beanie uses her highly expressive face for comedic effect as she reacts to an unexpected pairing, unseen by cool girl Hope (Diana Silvers), in Booksmart. The film is led and helmed by women, but it’s not a feminist reimagining, nor a parody of any film before it. It’s a film that clearly came from a fierce love for its story and characters, shared by everyone involved. It’s also a film that I cannot stop thinking about.
We all know the teen movie drill by now: the camera pans around a cafeteria, or courtyard (Mean Girls and 10 Things I Hate About You, respectively), as the school’s newbie is introduced to the different social groups, and so are we. The jocks, the ‘it-girls’, the nerds, the stoners. In these films, the outsider must understand that there are unwritten rules to follow - find your group, stick with them, and don’t think about talking to the popular people unless you’ve worked to get their respect. I went to a comprehensive school and, undeniably, the social circles were not as clearly defined as in the classic American teen movie (plus the concept of sororities and fraternities is still alien to me). But I did spend my teenage years watching Superbad and Clueless, as well the equally iconic British interpretations, such as St. Trinians and Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging. Incidentally, I didn’t really fit into any of the well-trodden cliques that we’ve come to know; in the first two years of school I was the ‘weird’ one, but by the time I was in my final year, I was friends with both the studious students and the popular kids. I was always just on the outskirts of the circles, my social credibility not established enough to truly be integrated into any of them. In Booksmart, we can quickly decipher which category every character falls into, but what makes the film stand out is that in the end, these rankings are just as arbitrary as they are in reality. The ‘dumb’ skater boys (Nico Hiraga’s Tanner and Eduardo Franco’s Theo) hang out with the jock; the jock (Mason Gooding’s Nick) shows affection, rather than judgment to the sartorially androgynous skater girl (Victoria Ruesga’s Ryan); the drug-taking ‘weird’ girl Gigi mingles with the flamboyant and pretentious drama students (Austin Crute’s Alan and Noah Galvin’s George); and the only thing that truly stops the intellectual, straight-laced Molly and Amy from partying with the popular kids is their own disdain for them. When our protagonists finally get to Nick’s end-of-school party, they find that they are welcomed with open arms, their peers excited at the prospect of finally seeing them cut loose.
It’s not always easy to recognize elements of pop culture when you’re not looking retrospectively, but Wilde has undoubtedly captured the zeitgeist of Generation Z through the comical, yet never cruel, ‘wokeness’ of her characters. A glimpse at Molly’s room suggests idols such as Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while Amy’s walls are laden with posters of statements like ‘My Body My Choice’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. Their use of the word ‘Malala’, a request for unwavering support, no questions asked, is both played for laughs and employed in times of sincerity. Jared (possibly my favourite character in the film) listens to an audiobook of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In because he likes to ‘listen to the words of powerful women’ before he parties. Amy’s plan to help make tampons in Botswana is earnest, but still a riff on the ‘gap year’ joke that myself and my friends have often made - along with mentions of George’s summer in Barcelona. On first watch, the laughs come from the larger-than-life characters and the script that so perfectly times its one-liners, while simultaneously mocking and adoring its cast. On further watches, small details are noticed, such as Jared’s baseball cap under his mortar board at graduation, and Amy’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ sign on her bedroom door. Every scene is so carefully constructed, each character so lovingly created; it’s impossible not to feel the care and passion that went into every single detail of the film.
While the entire ensemble cast shines, it is Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein’s performances which carry the coming-of-age elements of the film. While romantic interests are established and explored, Molly and Amy’s friendship is the beating heart of the narrative, aided by the fact that Feldstein and Dever lived together throughout the film’s shoot. The chemistry between the actresses translates into a fierce support that Molly and Amy have for each other which is clear in every scene: a support that is not only endearing and heart-warming, but hilarious. Molly asks Amy if she is aware of how many girls are going to be ‘up her vagina’ at college. Amy slaps Molly and subsequently affirms how great she is when Molly exclaims that her crush would never go for her. They even have a routine of over-the-top compliments and dramatic feigned shock at the other’s beauty every time they emerge in a new outfit. When they angrily call each other out on their respective flaws in an emotional argument (in front of most of their peers), we remember how arguing with our friends when we were teenagers was the worst feeling imaginable. You felt as if your world was crumbling down - even if you made up soon enough, as Molly and Amy inevitably do. Olivia Wilde and her cast have such a real way of portraying how earth-shattering small occurrences can be at this age; when your place in the world feels so defined by them that really they seem anything but small. Molly and Amy both witness an unexpected kiss that gives them their first taste of heartbreak, their expressions doing the emotional translating for us, rather than the dialogue. Though Molly clearly reaches a point of reluctant understanding of the situation before Amy does, by the next day at their graduation, the futures on the horizon for them eclipse anything that happened the night before. The hesitation, the excitement, the fear of the unknown: all of the emotional responses to leaving behind the most significant chapters of their lives thus far, are relayed with an electricity and energy that is exhilarating.
While Amy is more reserved and laidback, Molly is controlling, exuberant, and ‘in your face’. In short, she is what you might call a bit ‘too much’. I have always felt like I am also ‘too much’. Too loud, too bossy, too emotional. My experience of being a teenager at school made me try to shrink myself down, make myself smaller and quieter, to fit in with the people around me. Molly doesn’t do this. She is, of course, more authentically ‘Molly’ when her and her best friend are alone together, but despite her peers’ teasing, she stays true to herself throughout the film. Even when she overhears some particularly cutting comments about her ‘nerdiness’ behind her back, she retaliates with her own scathing retorts; only to find out that the popular kids, despite their partying, are going to the same Ivy League schools that she and Amy worked so hard to get into. The thing that truly separates Molly from her peers is her view of them, which changes after her and Amy spend their wild night getting to know their classmates and realising that really they are not all that different.
I couldn’t write about this film without mentioning one of the best soundtracks of any film I’ve seen. Other critics have noted how Wilde directs her film almost like a music video: the saturated colour palette, vibrant costume design and combination of quick cuts and slow-motion making for a collection of episodic set pieces, which chronicle the two-day (but mostly one night) period of the protagonists’ whirlwind adventure. Accompanying these stylistic chapters is a selection of carefully curated, head-bopping songs, although some scenes could benefit from us being able to experience the music for a little longer before cutting to the next scene. The electrifying opening riff of FATABOOM’s “Double Rum Cola” pounds as the soon-to-graduate students celebrate with a water balloon fight led by Tanner, and perfectly portrays the anticipation of a world of opportunities in the near future. Leikeli47’s “Money” accompanies our introduction to Gigi as she dramatically rides into school in Jared’s car - license plate reading ‘FUK BOI’ - and Amy quips, ‘here comes the 1%’. George gets a bit too into his karaoke rendition of Alanis Morissette’s iconic break-up song You Oughta Know, before Amy belts out a chorus and impresses her peers with her vocals. Some of the best coming-of-age films feature scenes in swimming pools - The Graduate (1967), Ladybird (2017), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) - and Booksmart is no different. The swimming pool at Nick’s party is the setting for a pivotal moment in Amy’s night, and in the film, as Amy follows her crush’s lead, strips to her underwear and jumps in. Perfume Genius’ Slip Away is the soundtrack to Amy’s glee as she swims, seemingly feeling completely free for the first time in her life; but her happiness soon slips away in itself, when she witnesses the hurtful catalyst for the unravelling of her and Molly’s evenings. I could go on: not one song choice in the film falls flat.
Teen movies and coming-of-age films are not few and far between, and neither, currently, are narratives centered around female friendship. But Booksmart plays with the conventions of these genres, updating the classic gags and storylines for a 2019 audience, in a thoughtful and genuine way. The film is sure to become a classic, guiding future audiences on the landscape and atmosphere of its time. It is a huge testament to the direction of Wilde, and the talents of the brilliant cast, that this film can have such a personal effect on its audience and yet still feels universal. There are references to its filmic influences - most notably with Gigi’s Almost Famous-inspired ‘I’m a golden starfish!’ line - but it still stands up on its own as a sweet, funny, and tender film. And its effect on me just confirmed what I love about cinema; more than simply escapism or catharsis, film can speak to your experiences, your fondest or most heart-breaking memories, and the parts of you that make you who you are.