Olivia Butler, 2019, USA
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins,
Susanna Fogel & Katie Silberman
Count ‘Booksmart’ as another film ill-served by its trailer. It’s not a just a ‘Superbad’ for girls, a gender-reversal on the standard hormonal (possibly obnoxious) young men gross-out comedy, although it is that too. It’s the tale of two girls at their last day of school realising that in having made the choice to forfeit fun for a more academic approach, they have been missing out. After all, their peers who apparently have just been goofing around are still going to good universities. So, they embark upon an odyssey to go to a party one last time to make up for what they’ve lost out on. Because partying defines young America.
It’s directed in a no-fuss style by Olivia Wilde that allows Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever to fully indulge in evoking a believable friendship between the two nerds, Molly and Amy. The screenplay is funny all the way through with a couple of surprises thrown in. The fact that Molly isn’t a Barbie doll is never mentioned. The fact that Amy is gay is just an excuse for more risqué gags and for offbeat crushes: no angst here. Even when the girls have a falling out, music mutes the argument and the camera strays to look around, because although the argument matters, ‘Booksmart’ doesn’t dwindle so that it drags the comedy into dull dramatic cliché (although Pat Brown sees this as a misstep). There a real let’s have fun! philosophy at work here.
The cast fully embrace the broad strokes of their archetypes (everyone wants to be in ‘The Breakfast Club’) and, of course, over the course of the film their deeper layers are revealed: Hey, jocks like ‘Harry Potter’! Insufferable dweebs are just trying too hard and are actually sweet and interesting! The seemingly dumbass guy who has re-taken years is going onto coding! Hey, do you think maybe those guys are gay? etc. As Molly and Amy are defined in more complex and believable ways – for example, their ritual of praising each other to high heaven when dressing up is both endearing and cringe-worthy – this does leave a gulf of characterisation between them and others, but the sense of all-inclusivity wins out. There’s a benign agenda of acceptance that eschews, say, the tougher terrain of ‘Eighth Grade’ for an agreeably positive outlook. It’s more like ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ in its message for “get over yourself and have a good time” and “this is just a phase”. They are presented as a very self-aware generation but not with the tiresome privileged and narcissism of ‘Assassination Nation’. Untypically, peers aren’t vehemently nasty or bullying: indeed, these girls are generally welcome wherever they go. It becomes clear they’ve been their own worst enemies when it comes to socialising, that actually it’s they who have been indulging in snobbery. And then, as the genre demands, over one night they learn their lesson and it’s all good. This generosity of spirit makes ‘Booksmart’ highly likeable and uplifting.
Butler and team wanted to make the kind of teen comedy they loved as adolescents, but ‘Booksmart’ is better than John Hughes candyfloss because it’s less prone to platitudes. It’s not above the broad humour of falling into claymation for a drug rip, but even this turns out to be a jab at the Barbie Doll fantasy. It benefits from updating the perspectives of its influences. It all makes for highly agreeable, slightly edgy and consistently funny light entertainment.