Still from Booksmart

why you should watch ‘booksmart’ this weekend

"Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women," tweeted director Olivia Wilde.

by Claudia Paterson
31 May 2019, 7:00am

Still from Booksmart

“This is not a time to celebrate. We have to go to a party.” This grim directive is delivered without irony by Molly, a pompously bookish high school senior to her best friend Amy as they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking Los Angeles. Having spent their high school careers eschewing sex and drugs for schoolbooks and sleepovers, Amy and Molly have just learned that their classmates, who made no such sacrifice, have still managed to score places to Ivy League colleges and jobs at Google, rather than ‘peaking in high school’ as dictated by lore. “But you don’t care about school,” one of them says pointedly. A girl nicknamed Triple A for having reputedly provided “roadside assistance” to three senior boys, corrects her: “No. We just don’t only care about school.” Shaken, Molly resolves that her and Amy will simply make up for everything they’ve been missing out on -- in one night.

This reminder that the cool kids aren’t necessarily slackers or idiots is the first of many well-worn clichés that are dismantled as Booksmart -- Olivia Wilde’s impressive directorial debut -- progresses. Too engrossed in their books to engage with the idiosyncrasies of their own generation, Molly and Amy have been raised on the same generic tropes and character types as many of us in our teens and twenties have, and are accordingly baffled, delighted and dismayed by the vividly complex and textured social world their classmates have been developing in their absence.

Written by four female screenwriters, Booksmart is like a magical mystery tour of the new rules of high school, or a lack thereof. The hackneyed stock characters of previous generations’ renditions of high school culture -- the jock with a heart, the troubled cheerleader, the weirdo with a bright future -- are skewered one by one and revealed as embarrassingly reductive by these kids, who are far too woke for labels. Millennial politics are deftly threaded throughout the script (even an innocuous bathroom trip comes with a reminder that “Until all genitals are free, none of us truly are”) but they come infused with authentic zeal by the Gen Z cast.

As protagonists, Molly and Amy are insufferable, but endearingly so. Prior to their realisation that their classmates have not only been playing hard but low-key acing their SATs and excelling in coding, the pair are smug about the relative brightness of their futures compared with everyone else. As soon as this delusional bubble has been popped and their naively narrow worldview destabilised along with it, the sharp and interesting edges of their characters begin to shine through. Molly isn’t actually the stuffy middle-aged woman in a young girl’s body that she appears to be; she’s fun, and determined to prove it. On the surface, Amy is less cocksure than Molly, though she possesses an air of nonchalance that one feels will blossom into fully-fledged disdain by the time she enrols at Columbia (following a suitably saintly gap year, hand-making tampons in Botswana).

"Olivia Wilde directs the ensemble with an eagle-eyed appreciation for small moments and catches every tiny detail, ensuring that the succession of bizarre parties the girls attend are teeming with life, rather than feeling like staid set pieces."

Despite their comprehensive curricular knowledge -- and Molly’s keen interest in porn -- the girls are highly unschooled in the art of seduction. Amy came out two years ago but has yet to make any meaningful romantic strides (beyond nightly assignations with a rather battered-looking stuffed panda) and Molly’s ferocious game face at school has effectively disqualified her from the dating game. At one point, in another departure from cliché, she overhears some classmates disparaging her in the toilets but it is not her appearance or popularity that they pick on but her character: “She’s like a butter face but for personality. She’s a butter personality.”

Molly’s crush Nick is a frustratingly well-rounded popular guy, while Amy’s long-term obsession is a tattooed girl with frizzy hair and a stoned smile named Ryan. Amy’s faltering attempts to ascertain whether she’s gay or straight are clumsy and deeply familiar. Explaining her decision to spend her gap year in Botswana rather than Uganda, due to the latter government’s censure of homosexuality, she inquires casually whether Ryan might be, “uncomfortable going to Uganda, too?”

As with its forbearer, Mean Girls, Booksmart owes a great deal to its stellar cast of supporting characters. Wilde directs the ensemble with an eagle-eyed appreciation for small moments and catches every tiny detail, ensuring that the succession of bizarre parties the girls attend are teeming with life, rather than feeling like staid set pieces. Reminiscent of the safari interludes in Tina Fey’s seminal hit, Wilde creates a vivid social tableaux which feels akin to lifting a log to discover a whole ecosystem of adolescent energy whirring below. What differentiates it from Fey’s account is the ubiquitous presence of smartphones, which glow eerily in the background as Molly and Amy have their eventual public showdown, witnessed by their stunned classmates, albeit filtered via rectangular screens.

Despite its glowing reviews and stellar cast and crew, Booksmart opened to a disappointing $8.7 million in its first weekend, less than genre siblings Superbad or Mean Girls. Determined not to let the film slip under the net, Wilde, along with cast members and a slew of celebrity friends, have launched what amounts to a grassroots campaign to get audiences out to see the film. Ryan Reynolds, whose voice features in competing film Detective Pikatchu, nevertheless tweeted his support for Wilde’s film: “BOOKSMART. Don’t walk, RUN to see this. Today and all summer. Holy shit.” Taylor Swift, Mindy Kaling and Lili Reinhart all added their praise for the film and urged audiences to buy tickets, but the most eloquent tweet came from Wilde herself, who put it in plain terms:

It’s true that the momentum from #metoo and #timesup have culminated in a surge of women-led productions across film and TV, however recent legislative developments in Alabama have proven that the pendulum can swing back alarmingly, just as it seems progress is finally being made. Wilde -- a first-time female director, helming a female-led production written by a fleet of women -- should be a success story for the movement, and yet she is right that failing to land an immediate commercial hit has been used time and again as an excuse not to back female directors.

If high school functions as a microcosm of wider society, it’s no wonder that these two characters take such frequent breaks to psyche one another up -- “Can someone call the fire brigade, we have a fire raging over here!” -- before re-entering the fray. One imagines Wilde and her writers and producers engaging in similar group huddles during the production (and now distribution) of Booksmart, hoping and praying that it connects, aware of the stakes if it does not.

There is one brief moment during the final party in which both girls hit their stride and seem to be levitating on a bubble of delirious social bliss. Molly is engaged in breezy flirtatious banter with handsome Nick and Amy is pulled out and into the steamy swimming pool by Ryan. To Perfume Genius's epic Slip Away, she plunges into the water and floats within a sea of disembodied adolescent limbs. The moment is brief and ends in further turmoil, but it’s a reminder of how good it feels when things are working and everyone is in sync. A party where no one is a loser, and everyone is welcome.

female directors
Olivia Wilde