Review: Booksmart (2019)


If Heathers was the iconic teen movie of the '80s, if Clueless was the iconic teen movie of the '90s and if Means Girls was the iconic teen movie of the '00s, Booksmart is the iconic teen movie of the 10s (albeit with some stiff competition from Lady Bird).

In the opening scenes where we watch Beanie Feldstein's character Molly dance down her stairs to her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), greet herself with a chirpy 'Good morning, winner' salutation and self-affirming morning mantra, director Olivia Wilde establishes a warm, feel-good, and comedic tone, which is coupled with a knowingness and sensitive commentary on what it is truly like to be a young person today.

A gif of Molly from Booksmart dancing like a robot on her steps

However, where other films within the same bracket bastardise social groups in order to achieve easy laughs (see: American Pie for a vulgar view of heterosexual courting, or Mean Girls, which expertly creates conflict between archetypal school cliques), Booksmart cleverly plays with stereotypes and genre tropes in the first half of the film, only to deconstruct them in the latter half to reveal fully formed, complex characters that a much wider audience can accept and adore - without feeling personally victimised [by Regina George].

Rather than being a film that hinges entirely on romantic pursuit or sexual fulfilment (even if it does cover both of those bases), best friends Molly and Amy are on a different path to success. That doesn't necessarily mean they both want the same thing, but one thing is certain: they do it together. Their bond as they explore their identity is real, endearing and hilarious. They are outcasts, but not in the same way as The Breakfast Club's Allison Reynolds. They are nerds, but not in the singular Napoleon Dynamite sense. They are funny, but not because they're making fun of others. They are sexual, but not sexualised. Through excellent characterisation and incredible direction, Wilde and her team of female writers ensure that the audience care for - and laugh with - the duo as if they were in our own inner-circles.

A gif of Molly saying 'Who allowed you to be this beautiful' in a sassy way.

Like every film with cult status, which Booksmart is well on its way to achieving, this one features several iconic scenes which set an entirely new precedent. In one trippy, animated set-piece, the protagonists turn into stop-motion barbie-esque dolls and marvel at their plastic physiques and lack of genitals while hallucinating at a bizarre murder mystery house party. Teen awkwardness is abundant throughout, but one scene during a car journey with their headteacher-come-Uber-driver is particularly wince-worthy. Best of all, several scenes normalise same-sex relationships... and guess what? They're just as beautiful, exciting and confusing as straight ones.

The Californian community in which the main characters reside features a range of characters that audiences may draw conclusions about all too soon. Characters that we would typically be manipulated into disliking remind us not to be so naive as viewers, or judgemental as people. The 'jock', for example, isn't just a pretty boy relying on his charm to get through life; the 'rich kid' isn't arrogant or entitled as one might expect; and as Class President and Valedictorian Molly proves she is more than the sum of her SAT scores. Even the teachers are humanised! Wilde ensures that we empathise and enjoy the presence of all characters.

Besides the compelling story arcs of Molly and Amy, Booksmart also features a joyous soundtrack bursting with the confidence, beauty and angst to complement each and every coming-of-age moment (see Lizzo's 'Boy', Perfume Genius's 'Slip Away' and Cautious Clay's 'Cold War'). This contemporary approach also feeds into the dialogue, which has the characters frequently namedropping successful, heroic and intelligent women (Mulala, Joan of Arc, Rosa Parks, as three of many possible examples) as well as commenting on class and status ("Here come the 1%") and feminist approaches to the female form through candid conversations about sexuality and gender performativity. As heavy-going as that may sound, Booksmart still consistently brings the laughs, and maintains a mischievous and witty take on millennial life.

Molly and Amy from Booksmart walking through the library

For some, this film will be an easy watch about a pair of best friends having a personal crisis. We've seen it before in movies of a similar ilk - they strive to prove their social worth to their high school peers on the eve of graduation in an idyllic, fanciful setting, with plenty of physical, emotional and moral obstacles along the way. Perhaps it isn’t always realistic, but to others, Molly and Amy and the people that surround them are much more than mates on a mission to party. They are two female lead characters; one is a main queer character and it also presents a Christian family doing their best to understand their gay daughter. Not only are they likeable and funny, they’re admirable... and so is Wilde for getting a film featuring such positive representation and diversity green lit.

 

Verdict: A gleeful directorial debut that will be quoted for years to come. Enjoyable from beginning to end.

Overall? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚

 

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