Directed by Olivia Wilde
From 31st May 2019
Reviewed by Ashley McGovern
America, as is widely accepted, created the teenager. A postwar concoction, the new creature and its moods caught on, spreading far beyond the shores of the republic. Some time later, out of intrigue, documentary fervour or penance, they finally got round to founding the museum in which to house their creation: the high school movie. There’s been some highly memorable exhibits. And the latest to join them are the two main characters in Booksmart, the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends, resting somewhere near the ‘bookish nerd/future Democratic primary nominees’ end of the senior high spectrum. They’re serious, slightly judgemental, full of witty jibes, fairly but not conspicuously awkward, and superbly proud of their fourth wave feminism. They will, you’re led to believe, achieve great things. Yet so will other people.
The conceit is that the girls have spent so long studying, they’ve never experienced anything remotely like the partyhard lifestyle of their colleagues. Worse still, those who do live it up like 80s Brat packers are also heading to the same vaunted collegiate paradise of our ambitious duo: the Ivy League. Molly and Amy have slaved away without downtime, a trap their rivals refused to fell into. Time to make amends.
Taking leave of genre classics, from Dazed and Confused to Superbad, we witness the great paradox of high school movies. A paradox that’s overtly silly but woundingly felt in its own way: you have one night to live out youth. With graduation looming, Mollie and Amy have just one chance at experiencing a night of unhinged irresponsibility; the change for drugs, sex and pent-up confessions. Thus, the movie delivers a quest narrative. The girls need to find the big leaving party, to which they’re not exactly invited, and on the way there are some hilarious distractions.
Wilde knows the high school terrain. We get the endless rows of lockers, cluttered teen bedrooms, the embarrassing parents. And for the supporting pupils…well, characters in high school movies are like Major Arcana of the Tarot pack. Genre-bound but never boring, the same types have appeared on the screen since the 1970s: the slut (The High Priestess), the stoner (The Fool), the dorks (The Hermit), class presidents (The Chariot) and so on. Schools in the 1990s seemed very Chariot and Fool-heavy (cf. Election, Slacker); whereas the late 70s and early 80s movies preferred to play with perennially awkward Hermits (Weird Science, Porkys, Animal House). The hand dealt here by Wilde and co. is a democratic mix, and all are wonderfully played with small, touching moments of type reversal paced throughout the film.
Written by four female screenwriters, the comedy is lively, brilliantly witty and only occasionally amps up a character that adds very little (the waywardly boho Billie Lourd character). Exuberantly feminist, and depicting a main character that is gay (Amy), the two leads are quirky empowerment mechanisms.
One way of looking at feminism, the film seems to say, is simply ripe, honest, devoted female friendship, and the film explores this current without inscribing any clumsy supra-narratorial messages, a skillful example to the industry at large.
You’ll leave Booksmart wanting to be college friends with Mollie and Amy. It’s a thrilling, intelligent movie that left me with the same slight melancholy all high school movies do. Mollie drives Amy to the airport as she’s leaving for charity work in Botswana; Mollie will soon be off to Yale. What happens to these two intelligent, bold, charming characters? To my knowledge, Animal House is the only film set in the ribald world of students that offers any sort of hint about where the anarchic cast end up. Right at the end, we get some captions:
Killed by his own platoon in Vietnam.
Nixon White House aide, serves time in prison.
Unlike every other item in the American teen museum, the National Lampoon team kindly briefed us in on where exactly college buffoonery can take you. I left the cinema thinking about the strange lives of our high schoolers for a long time afterwards. The soon-to-be adults leave behind a life of classes, malignant gossip, homework, embarrassing discoveries, sleepovers, unimpaired ideals, lazy lunchtimes.
From this, you craft something of yourself. I want to know what happens next.