Ahead of the release of her directorial film debut, the actress Olivia Wilde felt a need to apologize for not having studied filmmaking. Nevertheless, she told The Guardian, “My 15 years on set as an actress had actually been my de facto film school, and then I’d been spending that time shadowing great directors,” such as Martin Scorsese. Her first feature, “Booksmart,” shows she is indeed standing on the shoulders of giants; but she is also a new and singular voice.
The movie is the successor to and descendant of “Superbad” (2007), a comedy about the last night in high school of a pair of friends who want to lose their virginity. That picture helped launch the careers of Jonah Hill, Michael Sera and Emma Stone. “Booksmart” also provides a platform for an impressive lineup of raffish young talents, headed by Beanie Feldstein (“Lady Bird”). The comparison to “Superbad” comes naturally, because Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s real-life younger sister.
Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends in a swank Los Angeles high school. They have no other friends, and we soon realize why. It’s not so much that they’re outcasts as that they’re insufferable. Even on the last day of school, Molly, the president of the student council, nags the principal to schedule a budget meeting with her. The introverted Amy submissively accepts her role as a supporting player in Molly’s flamboyant show, and flows with her in everything.
That’s the exterior façade in the high school jungle where they’re always on the defensive. But when they’re alone together, they’re a snappy comedy team with excellent chemistry. Mature, sharp and witty, they fire off wisecracks and references with a speed not seen since “Gilmore Girls” – only they perspire less from the effort.
Their whole conception of themselves and of the world is shattered on the morning of the last day of school, when they realize they’ve wasted four years. While all the other students were busy with parties, sex, drugs and drink, all they did was study and cram. Not that it didn’t pay off – Molly’s been accepted to Yale, Amy to Columbia. The problem – a fine allegory for an entire generation – is that they discover they were suckers. It turns out that their friends who partied their way through high school have also been admitted to the same or better institutions.
Outraged by the injustice, Molly declares angrily that it’s not fair, because only she and Amy care about school. Another girl sets her mockingly straight: “No, we just don’t only care about school.” So the two friends decide to take advantage of the last night to stop being nice girls. For the first time they’re going to party. On the way to the “right” shindig, where suppressed crushes will surface, they encounter a series of wrong parties. Although sex and virginity are part of the story, they’re no longer the main things. This isn’t “Superbad.”
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With Wilde in the director’s chair and four experienced screenwriters of the likes of Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”), “Booksmart” aspires to be a conscious reply to coming-of-age movies such as “Dazed and Confused” and “Superbad.” But not as a reaction or an homage: the earlier pictures become raw material for a truly independent statement. Of course, there is the gender reversal – hyper-aware of itself – to the male viewpoint of teen comedies, which tend to be saturated with humor about sex organs and bodily excretions. The two girlfriends are feminists, as we glean from the glut of references to Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But they’re still in adolescence, and life for them is fertile ground for jokes about masturbation and sex, body fluids (different ones) and blistering insults, this time from their angle and with their interpretation.
A collection of quick-witted characters, no less verbal and mentally agile than the two protagonists, fills their world. All of them embody diverse familiar stereotypes: the sluttish girl, the pothead, the athlete and whatnot. The stereotypes, however, fulfill a true role. The protagonists, their friends and their rivals, and in fact the whole movie, are the realization of a type of political correctness that has assumed material form and become a real child, like Pinocchio. Even so, they partake of humanity, through which an authentic statement is made about the generation born in the 21st century. Especially when it’s an affluent liberal high school in California, where the kids grew up under helicopter parents.
The class of 2019, whose members were born in 2001, imbibed political correctness without critical thought, rather as a fait accompli. Molly’s weight, Amy’s coming out of the closet – it’s all self-evident. When one of them has to explain to an adult the difference between a proclivity to sexuality and a gender performance, it looks almost natural.
However, there’s a price for a teen comedy overflowing with hormones and passions but also with exaggerated correctness. With Molly as the most threatening character, there’s no bully to be afraid of. When the teachers are affable and helpful, there’s no authoritative personage to stand in their way. If the parents are so supportive, there’s no one to rebel against. The only possible obstacle in their way, apart from bad luck, is the relationship itself. Like “Superbad” and its predecessors, the night journey of the two protagonists gradually exposes the covert tension that forms ahead of the inevitable parting when they go away to college.
The central occupation with platonic relationships, alongside a secondary occupation with sex, is refreshing but insufficient. The ending experienced by the other characters is even less fulfilling, even though some of them have no less potential than McLovin from “Superbad” to become cult characters. The director’s choice to conclude with a systematic shattering of every stereotype is didactic and wearying. The decision to supplant them with other stereotypes, no less artificial, is far more disappointing.
Despite the problems, Wilde, in her debut as a director (aside from a few music videos) displays impressive boldness. She may have learned from directors she has worked with as an actress, but she has a singular touch. Stylized and showy, unabashedly optimistic, a purveyor of almost musical dialogues and a marvelous soundtrack that sets the scene at all the right moments.
An important element in the picture’s success is the sensitivity, empathy and resepct the director demonstrates for her characters, who, even when they are extreme and even ridiculous, are not hollow. It’s through this prism that Wilde manifests sensibilities and ideas of a new generation, a new period and a different visual language. Although she occasionally stumbles into a trap of pretentiousness, that too only reflects her readiness to take risks.
“Booksmart” succeeds in breathing life into teen coming-of-age movies, which tend to clone themselves. Wilde’s statement is not confined solely to adding a woman’s point of view and representation, nor is that the secret of the film’s charm. The effort is directed toward a total genre rewrite, and not just in regard to women. Wilde doesn’t break the mold, but broadens it and adds a new, contemporary layer. It will be interesting to see the reception the movie gets, as it bears a divisive potential: It could become a cult movie for some groups, whereas for others it will amount to no more than another gripe about the youth of today.