Thoughts on the movie By M.Schinke
Last chance to turn it up, OpinionNerds!
High school movies are about as common as hot dogs at a picnic, and it takes quite a bit to make one stand out from the herd. Director Olivia Wilde may have just created a minor classic with Booksmart, putting her stamp on the reliable end of high school/ coming of age story to present a look at teen life as it is in 2019. Or at least how we want to think it should be; unapologetic in it’s woke-ness and uncomfortably funny from start to finish.
Amy (Kaitlin Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are destined for great things. For the last four years they have avoided doing anything fun to put all of their efforts into school and it has paid off in a big way – or so they thought. When Molly finds out that even the dopiest among her peers who partied and slacked their way through school are still getting into the good colleges she busted her ass for, she has a minor meltdown and declares that she and Amy will not leave high school without at least attending one party; the biggest part of the year! With Amy chasing the the girl she’s crushing on and Molly insanely determined not to feel like she’s thrown away four years of her life for nothing, just getting to the party will challenge expectations and their very friendship. Directed by Olivia Wilde from a screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman the film also stars Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudekis, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Billie Lourde, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin and so many more!
Being book smart is defined as having knowledge but no experience, a theme the movie tackles through its unique storytelling. Though this is her first film, director Wilde has come out of the corner swinging with a just a bit dirty, just a bit raunchy teen comedy that bears unique millennial markings. Director Wilde creates a heightened, slightly exaggerated world that feels as though multiple time periods have been mashed together to create a kind of homage to the history of the high school, coming of age comedy. Each of the characters is uniquely drawn both in look and in personality, not an easy task given a cast this large. The main theme of the film is that people are often deeper and more complex than they appear; as in don’t judge them by their cover. The movie introduces us to a group of characters as seen from the main pairs (Molly and Amy’s) point of view as they mostly look down on those around them. These images of the characters begin to break down towards the end of the films first third when Molly finds that she cannot hold her Yale acceptance over the heads of what looks on the surface to be three of her least applied classmates. From there, the movie will weave the character through a series of interactions that open up the people they have spent the last four years denigrating while also revealing maybe they don’t know themselves or each other quite as well as they thought, as we see how what are presented as pragmatic character traits are actually perceived by the other.
The screenwriters and director Wilde have created a, “woke”, comedy with a diverse cast that doesn’t make it a point of focus, feel the need to be self-aware or poke fun at it’s wokeness. There is no denigration of anyone based on stereotypes of race, gender or sexuality, but some of these elements are used as part of building the films exploration of themes. The two fabulous gay boys are fabulously gay, and there is an immediate pegging of what lesbians should, “look” like that enforces out and proud Amy’s pursuit of her crush. But these visual cues are necessary to tell the story, and not there to push negative stereotypes – an item that, in fact, ends up being part of the storytelling. There is never a point where Molly’s weight is a topic of jokes or a hindrance to her in any way. And the only times characters are shown talking down about one another it’s about who they are as people, and not about appearances or anything of the like. It can, at a certain point, start to feel a little to, “After-School Special” the way that every character subverts their presented stereotype as the revelations aren’t always subtle or particularly deep, but they support the films theme and they make a strong statement that you can create genuine humor without having to put someone down.
The theme even extends to the adults in this world, including Amy’s very pro-gay Christian parents, the school principle and their favorite teacher Ms. Fine, all of whom are revealed to the audience as being more than who they might appear to be. It’s an interesting choice for a type of movie in which the adults are usually presented as the least complex characters of the lot. The most wonderful aspect of the film is that, despite the set up, expectations are subverted because there are no villains to contend with. This isn’t about the popular kids vs the nerds, rich kids vs the poor or anything like that. The problems the girls encounter are all the result of their own narrow minded approach to the people around them. It’s all internally generated conflict, as opposed to the girls just being victims of their circumstances. The bed in which they lay is the one they have made, they’re just trying to find the end of the sheets. None of the characters is a bad person, even when the drama finally turns it isn’t because anyone has done anything, “wrong”, but because our leads have to deal with the consequences of their approach to their lives.
The subversion of expectations runs deeply through the film and is used as the basis for a couple of gags that don’t quite work, particularly as we approach the finale. It seems a little self-conscious at times, like director Wilde was purposefully trying to see where she could take a bit of the piss out of what an audience expects to see. This is probably one of my few quibbles with the movie, the other being how unnaturally quick and sharp the dramatic turn happens a little over an hour into the film. It came when it really felt like the audience was being set up for a swift kick in the emotional crotch, but it came a bit later than I would have expected. For me it didn’t leave enough time to explore how the revelations and dramatic changes affect the girls and push them to reevaluate themselves, and it was such a massive dramatic drop at such a late stage that it made it a little difficult for me to reconcile how it resolves. Dramatically it was necessary, and it fit perfectly; thematically. But how it resolves with the characters left me a bit cold. By the end there is also a startling lack of consequences for the girls activities, but that’s a fridge-logic issue that didn’t hit me until long after the film had ended.
Bring It Back To Me
I feel like director Wilde has made a strong statement with this first film that she is interested in exploring ideas in interesting ways. Actors turned director tend to produce more performance oriented work, but Wilde has the inklings of a little Gilliam in her work that could lead her down some interesting corridors if she’s willing to embrace it. In my mind, cinema is about exploring ideas and emotions in more complex ways than television, with visual stylization and metaphor providing information compression that can be unpacked over a longer period of time. I don’t know if this is the way director Wilde will take her journey, but I would certainly love to see her embrace cinema for all the tools it provides. There is nothing wrong with a performance driven film but I will never stop questioning why you would choose cinema over stage if all you want to do is record people talking.
I honestly had no idea what to expect from this movie but I always felt it was going to be more SuperBad than Lady Bird and, thankfully, I was right. At 105 minutes it still feels a bit long at times, and some of the bits don’t work as well as others, but the fact that Annapurna was cool letting director Wilde produce a raunchy teen comedy to the degree that they did instead of forcing a PG-13 approach is to be commended. I do wonder why, if you were going for an R, why not just let all the freak flags fly – but I generally want everything pushed to the limit as much as possible. There aren’t many places where you can feel the movie holding back but they do pop up from time to time. Outside of that I could not help but be impressed by the work director Wilde and her cast and crew produced. The film hit all the high-school comedy marks without having to tear anyone down and is still pretty funny, which is a substantial storytelling accomplishment if I do say so myself.
I don’t know if I can recommend this film strongly enough. I do hope that if you choose to see it you seek out a theater to see it in instead of waiting for a streaming service to pick it up. That’s how special I feel it is, and how important I believe it is to send the message that these kinds of films deserve to be made and exhibited just the same as any superhero flick or action franchise blockbuster. That won’t happen if we don’t send the message that cinema matters.
I mean; that’s just smart.
Clever endings aren’t my bag.
Booksmart is in theaters NOW!
Follow *NotThePopularOpinion on Twitter @Only_Grey or on Facebook @NotThePopularOpinion