If you had to elevator pitch Booksmart, it would be easy: Superbad with nerd girls. Both movies are R-rated coming-of-age comedies about awkward, unpopular high school students on the cusp of graduation. In both cases, best friends – about to be separated by different post-school plans – are desperate to get to the biggest party in town, and prove that they know how to have a good time, just like the cool kids. Wild misadventure ensues.
Yes, you probably know the drill with these debauched teen comedies. But Superbad is also 12 years old now, and until Booksmart nobody has (to my knowledge) depicted female experience in the same vein. Is there a difference? Not really, but Booksmart is a welcome update of the concept, providing an amusing, perceptive and authentic-feeling look at high school life as it stands today. Once you delve past the often contrived comedic set-pieces, that is.
There’s no bullying in Booksmart; no swaggering jocks out to demean others. Sexual orientation is a non-issue. Gossip is still a tool for turning people into outcasts though. Meanwhile, classmates are shunned for trying too hard, and phones are regularly hauled out to capture pivotal moments, good or bad, and immediately share them on social media.
This is the world of Booksmart’s heroines, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Deaver), two brainy dorks who realise their prioritising of academics has given them a lopsided high school experience. They’ve missed out because all their irresponsible, unfocussed classmates still got accepted to top colleges. Horrified by this revelation, the night before graduation Molly and Amy set out to restore balance by consciously going wild.
There’s no question that Booksmart suffers from preview over-revelation. Watch the regular or red band trailer and you’ve seen a good chunk of the film’s comedic highlights. But honestly, it’s not the R-rated shenanigans that make Booksmart stand out. We’ve seen booze and drug-fuelled teen debauchery played for laughs many times. The big selling point here is the film’s heart, which frequently shines through in the quieter moments between the implausibility. It’s these moments that make Booksmart feel real and relatable.
There’s also real meat to the characters. Molly and Amy may be incredibly smart but they have important life lessons to learn. Class president Molly has an exceptionally forceful personality and is dead-set on becoming the youngest ever Supreme Court Judge. She’s also arrogant and has dismissed many classmates as academically inferior, and therefore not worth her time.
Meanwhile, timid Amy must become more assertive, having been railroaded by Molly for most of their friendship. Amy’s also a lesbian, but despite being out for two years has never acted on her crush for free-spirited classmate Ryan. Graduation eve is her final chance.
The audience follows the girls as their naturally disastrous evening progresses and they start digging through their school’s social strata. This brings them closer to their own important self-revelations. In the process, the film veers out of superficial and often silly shock-comedy turf into the thematic realm of John Hughes – with contemporary stylings of course.
Amy and Molly face harsh truths about their friendship. They also start to see their classmates in new, multi-dimensional ways. They’re not just the dumb jock, class slut, overbearing rich boy, and mean girl, and their stories ring true. Although there are stinging moments, Booksmart dismantles judgementality and sidesteps nastiness.
It doesn’t hurt that the movie has a highly likeable young cast (some, like Billie Lourd, with very familiar faces), and that they’re backed by the relaxed adult presences of Jessica Williams and Jason Sudeikis as school faculty, and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s hyper-Christian-but-supportive parents.
Booksmart is also notable as the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, with a script crafted by an all-women writing team. It’s always seemed like Hollywood has never known what to do with Wilde and her combination of beauty, smarts, sense of humour and strong opinions. As a result, she’s veered away from the mainstream and headed down the offbeat indie cinema route instead. The actress has enjoyed much better utilisation on TV in the past, particular with House. But Booksmart shows her to be a sharp, smart filmmaker, able to draw out credibility in-between the genre’s requisite ridiculousness.
Despite critical acclaim, Booksmart underperformed at the US box office. That’s a pity because the movie freshens up a well-tread formula by veering into new representational turf – while refusing to coast on that achievement. Hopefully, Booksmart will be found by many real-life booksmart girls and over time see its reputation grow, much like gossip spread around the classroom. Booksmart deserves the appreciation.
Last Updated: June 18, 2019
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