2019 | rated R | starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billi Lourd, Jason Sudeikis | directed by Olivia Wilde | 1 hr 42 mins |
An interesting astrix in the production of Booksmart is that is started life in the public eye on the hot Hollywood black list of favorite unproduced screenplays 10 years ago, back when it’s elevator pitch had to have been “Superbad for girls” and it was a very different story of two over-achieving high school girls who try to get boyfriends before prom. The final produce is still Superbad, centered around the friendship of an outgoing girl and her shy BFF who just needs to loosen up while they try to fit in with the cool kids at an end-of-year party, but it’s a distinct product of Hollywood’s politics via 2019. In 10 years the definition of progressive changed around the script. Now it feels like instead of hiring a script-doctor to come in and punch up the jokes, the studio hired a K street lobbyist to come in and insert socio-political buzzwords and then put the product in front of a test group that turned dials to admire the degree of wokeness it all was. Like a reverse Wag the Dog.
That script-lobbyist is Katie Silberman, releasing two other scripted films this year – the ambitiously retro rom-com Set it Up, and the muddled rom-com parody Isn’t it Romantic (which shares this movie’s willingness to side-step the “you need a man to be happy” trope). That Booksmart works as well as it does is despite, not because of, it’s Mad Libs-style script. It’s Olivie Wilde, in a confident directorial debut, who takes a strong hand and guides this movie out of the moldy cobweb of teen movie tropes several times – before it rigidly coils back up inside them again.
Booksmart is replant with Can’t Hardly Wait/early-00s teen movie clichés. The cool teacher and the principal who does something lame outside of work, the clueless parents, the jocks and parties, the teacher who hooks up with a student, the flamboyantly gay theater students (only the most loudly progressive movies seem to traffic in the most obvious stereotypes) and the quirky with a capital Q school oddballs that hover around everything. There is even something about Billie Lourd’s Gigi impossibly turning up everywhere the girls go that feels lifted from something else. While the movie is rarely funny, Wilde rightly zeroes in on the friendship at it’s heart and molds moments between over-bearing class president Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and shy sidekick Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) into bits of purely cinematic visual and musical beauty.
Wilde creates at least 2 wonderful bits of business here I want to mention. The first finds Amy following her crush into a pool, stripping down and swimming around her classmates in a rare, and short-lived, moment of freedom for the character with Wilde finding the perfect musical cue. Another great little piece of filmmaking follows that up when Molly and Amy have a fight. Where another movie would have treated this as a purely mechanical break-up-to-make-up second act turn, Wilde stages it with all the epic intensity of world-ending high school emotions, dropping out the audio and sliding the camera back and forth between the actors. It’s two of the better set pieces of the year.
Will this be the first movie ever where a woman decides she wants sex and doesn’t immediately get it? Not really. But another clever turn it makes is with the popular kids, taking the image that all they do is party and blow off class and turning it on it’s head. Where Superbad is sloppy and funny, Booksmart is polished and thoughtfully constructed. It also almost goes without saying that the movie lives and dies on the excellent chemistry between Feldstein and Devers. While I don’t buy that a generation of young girls out there worship Sasha Obama, I do buy that these two girls do and that’s what matters. That’s why this movie chugs right along when a lesser one would not have gotten off the ground with similar material.