High school movies often have a tendency to fall prisoner to the moment, their characters either unable or unwilling to look forward to what life could be like beyond the suffocating confines of high school. The best examples of the genre (American Pie, Superbad) recognize that many of us at the time felt the same way. Booksmart is no different, cringefully indulging in exploiting every emotion, every sentiment, and every awkward moment teenagers face on the cusp of adulthood. This is also the rare hormonal teen comedy smart enough to remind us that high school is, indeed, merely the beginning.
Helmed by Olivia Wilde in her directorial debut, Booksmart follows best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on their last day of high school. Viewed as pretentious by their classmates, they’ve been written off by the popular kids as outcasts. While they seem all alone at their school, they do have a closer relationship with their young, hip teacher, Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams), which only opens them to more ridicule by their peers. Pay attention, though, as this will come back around later, because that’s how this movie operates.
Throughout their high school years, best friends Molly and Amy vowed not to party or have too much fun in order to earn good grades and get accepted into their colleges of choice. Only they soon discover, thanks to an narratively effective bathroom scene, that their more popular classmates who they’d assumed were aimless losers partying their lives away every weekend, were also accepted into the same exclusive schools like Yale and Stanford.
With their worlds turned upside-down, the girls realize they could’ve been having fun the last four years and still earned their necessary good grades. So they vow to make up for all of that in one rule-breaking night. This opportunity presents itself when popular kid Nick (Mason Gooding) plans on throwing one of those epic end-of-the-year house parties that seem to exist in the movies, only the girls don’t know the address since nobody attending likes them. Basically the entire class is going to be there, and now they’re determined to do whatever it takes to find the location and prove to everyone they’re more than just pretentious sticks in the mud.
On the surface, Booksmart seems an awful lot like your typical teen sex comedy, only one fronted with females instead of the usual dude-bros. In fact, publicity for this film really wants us to know this gender switch (both in front of and behind the camera) lends itself to a different kind of teen sex comedy, one focusing more on not just the quirky relationships just between the leads but how they deal with familiar feelings of alienation, budding sexuality, and the fear of being alone.
The way the story introduces seemingly everyone in school feels more like a TV show than a film, which means setting up new characters feels a little forced at times. Secondary characters are reestablished over and over again through much of the first act, playing them off as a generalization of the entire school for the sole purpose of being able to reference them continuously throughout the story.
The biggest issue here is the generalization of a popular circle of classmates as the whole identity of their school. High school classes usually have hundreds of students, but we’re tricked into thinking this specific group represents the attitudes of the entire graduating class. The script (with four writing credits!) tends to focus on Molly and Amy’s envy on a very small and specific group of classmates who party hard every weekend, yet curiously still get straight A’s. We all knew these people in school, but this movie presents that particular phenomenon as the norm when in reality if you screwed around instead of studying you could pretty much kiss Stanford or Yale goodbye.
If recent headlines have taught us anything, unless you’re in the position to offer a few serious *ahem* donations to the right people, you’re probably not getting into that ivy league school. When high school ends, excessive partying can definitely catch up with you in college. It’s possible to still have fun along the way, but Booksmart presents it as all or nothing.
Part of the reason why the girls want an amazing last night is because they regret not having more fun in school, now determined to pack four years of fun into one night before it’s too late. Another reason is they care how everyone in their class perceives them, which comes off as misdirected as they’re unlikely to see most of these people again. Booksmart tries to do in one night what in real life can, unfortunately, take years to accomplish.
Also, the people Molly and Amy are envious of aren’t appealing at all. In fact, nobody is. Apparently, this entire school seems entirely absent of anyone who appears grounded. It’s been years since I walked the halls of my high school: do kids really act like this nowadays? No wonder older folks have such a distaste for millennials. Are they even millennials? I don’t even know anymore…I think I’m just old.
But that’s all part of that limited high school mindset, and what makes Booksmart a more interesting and better movie than others like it. At that point in your life, peer approval can seem like your whole world. It’s odd Molly and Amy sought it prior to this one night considering how much they seem to care now, but teenagers often see their world in such narrow and limited focus.
Booksmart is a film about breaking down barriers between you and your enemies, real or imagined. In this case, classmates you spend more time with than your actual parents, yet still know little or nothing about. Here is a movie trying to ground itself in reality, yet filled with unrealistic dialogue and characters that play more to stereotypes than nuance. And yet, what makes the film brilliant is how the filmmakers are able to find genuine laughs and sympathy that hit hard within those awkward, yet relatable moments. Despite its tendency to oversimplify, this is a fun movie that’s relatable on several levels, one that stays with you long after the credits roll.