Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut has a fresh take on the high-school coming of age film without losing the core elements we love about the genre. The students are still categorised into hierarchical groups albeit not as definitively as in iconic films like Mean Girls or Easy A etc. but you’ve still got the cool kids and the not so cool kids. The overachieving duo Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and queer-feminist Amy (Kaitlyn Denver) are part of the not so cool kids. But for the most part, they’re happy with their high-school life choices that have gotten them into Yale (Molly), and into a summer program to help women in Botswana make their own tampons (Amy). As far as they’re concerned, the rest of the student body would struggle through life as a consequence of their irresponsible choices. Or so they thought.
On the eve of their graduation, Molly bursts out of a toilet cubicle to deliver a scathing comeback to her peers whom she overheard making fun of her try-hard personality. When she snobbishly brags about her seemingly brighter future, she is stunned to find out that their post-graduation plans are just as impressive as hers. Unlike the cool kids we are used to seeing in other high school movies, these ones are popular and smart; a bit reckless and ambitious. This realization completely flips Molly’s reality over its head when she realizes that she too could have worked hard and played hard; that all the early-nights and 0 partying was not necessary and that the cool kids would indeed be okay. Enter the main plot of the movie: a one-night long party storyline (think Project X-without the exaggerated use of hard drugs and Jackass-esque stunts) with Molly and Amy trying to prove that they too can be smart and fun.
The endearing friendship between Molly and Amy serves as the backbone of the movie. Their dynamic resembling contemporary TV female friendships like Broad City’s Ilanna and Abi, with two distinct personalities (usually a more assertive one and the other with a quieter confidence) whose common ground is their fierce love for each other. As the two embark on a night of partying to prove to themselves as well as their classmates that they are indeed cool kids, we get to see just how special their friendship is.
It is not that female friendships are new to TV and Film, they’re just hardly ever the point. There is something about stories that not only center them, but hail them as equally important (if not more) to romantic relationships that still feels revolutionary in 2019. It is not hyperbolic to say that many of us wouldn’t have survived high-school without the friendships we fostered. And for many of us these friendships continue to keep us sane through post graduation life. Now more than ever, I am totally aware of the ways my girlfriends have contributed to my overall wellbeing and just how meaningful seemingly silly things like the drunk texts I’ve sent and received with misspelt variations of “I love you” are.
But the importance we attribute to them in real life is rarely translated well (if at all) on our screens; we are used to seeing a quirky sidekick to a lead who centers her career or a romantic relationship, rather than equally capable counterparts braving life side by side. Through Molly and Amy, Booksmart manage to paint a pretty accurate picture of what female friendship looks like. Yes, their relationship edges on co-dependency -an issue they are forced to address with an argument mid-party- but for the most part the pair seem to have successfully built a safe haven for each other amid the high-school madness. It also helps that the actresses’ chemistry is undeniable making their friendship absolutely believable.
Although the skeletal concept of the movie toys with the idea of two teenage girls’ high-school coming of age experience, the script is far from the uncomfortable, borderline painful cliché we often expect from this genre. The duo is actually interesting, they have aspirations, they are (mostly) sure of themselves, which makes the humor in their dialogue standout on its own as opposed to constantly being tethered to teenage angst. They talk about sex freely, with just enough awkwardness to make it relatable but not enough to be cringe-worthy. The movie’s comfort with Amy’s queerness is particularly refreshing; making it as exciting and confusing as her straight friend’s sexual awakening, rather than this otherworldly phenomenon it is often regarded as.
For all the things that were done greatly in this movie, I cannot help but feel like the overall execution of some of the characters felt overdone and underdone at the same time. Although Molly and Amy are the clear protagonists, the other characters are at times made to feel important enough for us to pay attention to but not enough for their character to be properly explored. Take Jared for instance, the rich kid who hosts the first party that Molly and Amy attend. As with the other characters we soon find out that he too is desperate to fit in and tries to do so by buying his peers’ acceptance. We also find out that he has all these interests like airplanes and theatre and furthermore has feelings Molly. But these facts are revealed so trivially it is hard to take his character seriously enough to empathize. And then there was Gigi, the typical party girl who experimented with drugs and was Harvard bound. It is pretty obvious that her character was supposed to be funny first and foremost-a very on the nose type of humor which was needlessly over the top considering how well the subtler forms of humor worked throughout the movie. It is also obvious that she has “layers” as alluded to by her close friend Jared who speaks highly of her, but this is hardly believable given the fact that she was merely used as a comedic prop for the entirety of the film. It is also safe to say that the movie could have done without the very (and I cannot stress this enough), unnecessary subplot of the teacher hooking up with a high-school kid. And lastly, Amy did not have to vomit on her first sexual encounter. These two elements had absolutely no redeeming value.
Regardless of the not so finer parts of the movie, for the most part, Wilde does a decent job of framing the high-school movie as progressive without turning it into a twitter thread in visual form. She offers a fresh take on the genre’s tropes while centering female friendships, making Booksmart pretty impressive as far as directorial debuts go.