GETTING STRAIGHT A’S, GIVING ZERO F’S
Throughout the years, the usage of the high school “coming of age” comedy / drama movie presentation is something that has been universal, speaking to the newest and latest adolescent / young adults’ viewers within its cinematic undertaking. Most of these tales speak of high school teenager, following an individual (or group) through their trials and tribulations in and around the school life…whether with their parental figures, teachers, and fellow classmates. In the 80s, Hollywood took a closer look at the teenager years (albeit dramatized versions) and produced some memorable hits about those adolescent high school years with such films as The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and St. Elmo’s Fire (all three were directed by John Hughes), Fast Times at Ridgemont Hight, Footloose, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and many others films. Since then Hollywood has revisited the insight into the of life of a teenager and sometimes have been played more for laughs in some crazy situations / scenarios like American Pie franchise, Superbad, and Accepted. That being said, more recent endeavors of high school dramedies like Lady Bird, The Edge of Seventeen, and Love, Simon, explore the more “grounded” events of a teenager’s life, while finding the sublime humor within its youth’s tales of rebellious teens, who are looking to find their identity in the sea of adolescence. Now, Annapurna Pictures and director Oliva Wilde present the latest addition to this “coming of age” teen features with the film Booksmart? Does this movie find a balance of drama / comedy within its undertaking / execution or does flounder within its adolescent premise by pandering to the wrong generation and appealing to what Hollywood considers to be interest?
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have been lifelong best friends and are ready to finally graduate from high school. The pair have worked hard for this moment to arrive, working hard to be the best students in their class, with Molly attending Yale in the Fall as Amy is heading to Africa to help the needy. When Molly learns that her hallway enemies, including Triple A (Molly Gordon), are also attending prestigious colleges after years spent goofing around, she has a meltdown, shocked that such bad teenage angst / juvenile behavior is being rewarded. Sick and tired of being labeled as the one of the “good kids”, Molly hatches a plan to attend a major house party for her classmates, joining forces with Amy to finally try their hands of troublemaking, with both teens hoping to cozy up to their secret crushes. However, as the night events unfold, Amy and Molly navigate all sorts of crazy setbacks and bizarre circumstances before they’re allowed to prove their inner coolness to her fellow peers.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
If I’m being honest with you guys, the whole “coming of age” high school dramedy narrative story is really a film subgenre unto itself. As a film buff and all-around lover of movies, I have found this subgenre to be quite likable as I usually gravitate towards watching one or two titles ever now and again. As I said above, most of these endeavors are a mixture of comedy and drama; offering the insight (albeit sometimes slightly stereotypically embellished) into the many faceted lives of adolescent teenagers and how they act amongst their peers and authority figures in and out of the classroom. Again, it sometimes can be presented for a good laugh or joke (sometimes raunchy ones at that) as well as wholesome aspect into the more private life that many of us once lived through (and how much it has changed). It definitely works for both an entertainment value as well as speaking to a particular teenage generation that grew up with these movies. Naturally, some of my personal favorites are the more classic hits and usually depend on the subject / tone of the feature. For the more comedy, I like American Pie (the original 1999 film), Superbad, and Accepted, while the more drama / emotional ones are Breakfast Club, Love, Simon, and The Edge of Seventeen. There are plenty of other titles out there that cover those two areas, but those are some of my “go to” features to watch within the classic “coming of age” high school features.
To that effect, Booksmart is the latest 2019 film project that seeks to gain entry within this movie subgenre group of understanding adolescent teens with their high school years. Personally, I didn’t hear much about this movie as I was first introduced to the film by seeing the film’s movie trailer one time when I went to the movies (I think it was when I went to see 2019’s Pet Sematary. I know….an odd choice to see a trailer preview for a more teen dramedy during a horror feature presentation). Anyway, I actually thought that Booksmart trailer that I saw was quite amusing as I laughed at various part and definitely caught my interest. To me (just judging from the various movie trailers and clips that I’ve seeing of it), the film sort of reminded me of 2007’s Superbad, but with two female leads instead of males. Moreover, I was quite interested to see the movie because it was directed by actress Olivia Wilde (more on that below). So, curious to see Wilde’s directorial works and a new high school teen comedy / coming of age feature, I went to see Booksmart a few days after its release, hoping to find the movie to my liking both as film critic and fan of these types of movies (in general terms). So, what did think of it? To be honest, it was quite good. Despite a very cliché / familiarity with its premise, Booksmart puts a fun, hilarious, and female spin of the classic high school “coming of age” tale. The movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel in its undertaking, but rather “updates” a new generation of moviegoers.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspect about Booksmart is that it is directed by actress Olive Wilde, who makes her directorial feature film debuted with this film. That’s not to say that this isn’t her first time directing as she’s done several shorts, including Free Hugs, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes: No One Yours, and Red Hot Chili Peppers: Dark Necessities. Still, Booksmart is her feature length directorial debut and (to be quite honest) Wilde does a very good job in helming the project. While other actors and actress have gone from being “in front” of the camera to the director’s chair and gave mixed results in their finished product endeavors, Wilde does certainly succeed in her own right; making Booksmart feel very much an enjoyable high school comedy. Given the very nature of the film’s story being told, Wilde balances the feature’s tale of the classic nuances in a “coming of age” narrative (mostly involving young adolescents high schoolers) and the hilarious comedic bits that are peppered throughout the film. Of course, some of these comedy moments definitely are a bit “over-the-top”, but Wilde seems to know her potential audience viewers as many will find the movie’s humor to be their liking, especially some of the more outlandish ones (one in particular comes to mind involving a scene that’s presented in clay stop-motion animation). Still, I personally found Booksmart’s comedy to be quite hilarious. Some of its was sharp (mostly reclining on stereotypes of old-school clichés and of modern-day references), but most of the feature’s laughs are presented in how its presented by the Booksmart’s characters (more on that below) as well as Wilde’s staging of some very wacky scenes.
In additional to Wilde’s direction, the movie’s script, which was penned by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, definitely speaks to the more modern generation of high school teenagers and to a newer audience that grew with this film genre. What do I mean? Well, the classic high school movie narrative usually follows a male protagonist or grouping of male characters (though on occasion a female protagonist is presented as well), with Booksmart giving the lead character roles to females (i.e. Amy and Molly) are giving them the opportunity to meander through a series of events throughout the night that showcases the character build’s in a developed manner….both how they grow as individuals and in their friendship. The movie even talks about a social commentary message is to “never judge a book by its cover” aspect, especially when passing a personal judgement on individuals. Of course, this is a universal theme (as old as time itself) and Wilde seems to embrace that ideology in the movie’s tale by not just showcasing that trait within Amy and Molly, but in several side characters that Booksmart’s two main characters come in contact with in the movie. In the end, the film’s script (along with Wilde’s direction) offers up a theatrical story that’s well-represented in its narrative drama arc as well as comedic timing humor.
Of its presentation, Booksmart is a visually appealing feature film and always has something to display on-screen…. whether that is for physical sight gags (be it objects or characters) or something cinematically shot. Of course, the film’s technical / theatrical presentation categories aren’t something that would probably be nominated for any type of awards or anything like that, but Booksmart certainly does meet the industry standards of presenting a comedy feature film. Thus, the work done by the film’s crew, including art direction (Erika Toth), production designs (Katie Bryon), set decorations (Rachael Ferrara), and costumes (April Napier), are all well-represented in the movie; adding a pleasing cinematic layer to Booksmart’s background setting / appearance. Lastly, while the film’s score, which was composed by Dan Nakamura, fits the movie’s on-screen presentation (hitting all the right melodic notes and beats throughout), there’s also a healthy dose of musical selection of songs that are quite catchy and definitely fit with the film’s overall tone.
The main problem with Booksmart is in its overall familiarity in being predictable and formulaic within its own narration story realm. Of course, the film has a lot of creative flourishes and nuances that make it stand out and not so-much a total knock-off. However (for better or worse), the movie does follow a very similar journey to that of 2007’s Superbad. You know what I mean…. two high school best friends (i.e. one the outspoken one and the other the meeker individual) who try to prove themselves (to their peers) a party. Of course, things go awry and a series of bizarre and wacky chain of events ensure, which test the friendship of the two with the pair learning of meaningful message about each other and their relationship they have. Plus, let’s not forget a great host of side characters that the two friends come across throughout their journey, which are mostly played up for laughs. So, yeah, you can definitely see the parallels between Booksmart and Superbad and really does feel like a retread of sorts (at least to me). I said before, Wilde (along Fogel, Halpern, Haskins, and Silberman) do embrace their iteration of this scenario and offer up some creative fun to it, but it was just hard to shake off the whole Superbad feeling while watching the movie. I mean…. even its ending sort of feels like Superbad. Again, it’s not a major turn-off, but itself definitely one big point of criticism that I think everyone will examine. Whether that criticism is a major or minor one depends on the individual. The other thing I noticed about Booksmart is how much more “out there” to other teen “coming of age” comedies…. (again)…. like Superbad. While Judd Apatow’s 2007 teen / high school comedy had plenty of weird and raunchy scenarios for its main characters, the film itself felt a little bit more “grounded”. Booksmart has a more “fanciful”; a sort of “hyper surreal” take on Superbad by turning up the bizarre absurdities of everything that Amy and Molly go through in the film. Yes, it’s pretty funny, but feels a bit more “surreal” and a “little too extreme” like something dreamt up by Hollywood (again…. back to Hollywood’s portrayal of what teens are thinking and doing nowadays as oppose to reality). So, despite a lot of positives, Booksmart does feel like a bit like a “movie world” by the film industry.
As a minor complaint (a little one) is that the film follows the stereotypical clichés of high school teens that are almost becoming “permeant staples” to the storytelling genre. You all know what I mean….the loudmouth class president, the flamboyant drama / theater kids, the teen girl who may or may not be a lesbian, the goofball jock who was elected on the student council, the crazy “drama queen” girl, the guy who secretly has the hots for his teacher, etc. The list goes on and on, but you get what I mean. These clichés, though relatable to all our high school days, feels a bit overused and I think that the movie doesn’t try to “update” these stereotypes beyond the commonplace usage of comedy bits.
The cast of Booksmart also lends credence to the overall entertaining likeability of the movie. Of course, most of this cast are not “A-listers”, but that doesn’t mean that the have quality acting talents and the movie definitely showcases their on-screen talents…. whether major or minor players of the story. Spearheading the movie are young actresses Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, who play Booksmart’s two main protagonist high schoolers BFFs Amy and Molly. Dever, known for her roles in Justified, The Spectacular Now, and Last Man Standing, is definitely makes Amy the more “introvert” one of the two and seems like the more “cliché” wallflower architype. Yet, her performance is still great and adds depth to that persona. Plus, it’s great to see her character transform throughout the movie. In contrast to Dever’s Amy, Feldstein, known for her roles in Neighbors 2, What We Do in the Shadows, and Lady Bird, definitely makes Molly the “louder” one of the two and definitely has all the hilarious comedy beats throughout the feature. However, Feldstein also gives a quality performance within her character, especially in the second half. In addition, both Dever and Feldstein have great on-screen chemistry with each other, which makes their friendship between Amy and Molly all the more believable throughout the movie (i.e. all the highs and lows). In the end, both of these actresses are great in their respective roles and definitely are the true highlight of Booksmart’s story.
With Dever and Feldstein headlining most of the movie’s screen-time, the rest of the cast is delegated to playing supporting roles in the feature’s narrative, with most interacting with Amy and Molly throughout the movie (in some way, shape, or form). Of this group, actress Billie Lourd (Scream Queens and American Horror Story) makes her character of Gigi the most memorable of the entire film. Of course, Lourd’s acting talents are fine for the role, but the character of Gigi is played with so over-the-top exaggerations (an almost larger-than life one) and crazy persona that she’s comes off as the one of the most hilarious character of the feature (loved her in the movie). The rest of the cast, including actor Skyler Gisondo (Vacation and Santa Clarita Diet) as Jared, actress Diana Silvers (Ma and Eve) as Hope, actor Mason Gooding (Ballers and The Good Doctor) as Nick (Molly’s secretive crush), actress Molly Gordon (Life of the Party and I Am Sam) as Triple A, actor Eduardo Franco (American Vandal and Adams Ruins Everything) as Theo, actor Nico Hiraga (Summer of 17 and Skate Kitchen) as Tanner, actor Noah Galvin (The Real O’Neals and Co-Ed) as George, actress Victoria Ruesga (who makes her theatrical debut) as Ryan (Amy’s secretive crush), actress Jessica Williams (Girls and The Incredible Jesse James) as Amy and Molly’s teacher Miss Fine, actor Jason Sudeikis (We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses) as high school principal Jordan Brown, and actress Lisa Kudrow (Friends and The Comeback) and actor Will Forte (Nebraska and MacGruber) as Molly’s parents (Charmaine and Doug) respectfully. All of these characters might be commonly used stereotypes for a high school teen movie, but (thankfully) the acting talents behind these characters help elevate them to make their sum parts to be memorable throughout the film.
High school best friends Amy and Molly are planning to shed their “uncool” status to their fellow peers for a night of wild adventures and partying in the film Booksmart. Director Olivia Wilde’s feature takes a new spin of the classic high school “coming of age” yarn, weaving familiar tones and characters into its tale that’s bolstered with hilarious comedy jokes and gags and poignant dramatic beats. Of course, these familiar aspects and commonplace clichés do hold the film back from being truly create (especially when the movie is compared to 2007’s Superbad), but Booksmart definitely finds its rhythm and ultimately lands on solid cinematic terrain…thanks to Wilde’s directing, a fun premise, and strong representation of its main leads (thanks to Dever and Feldstein). Personally, I liked this movie. It was definitely hilarious (I laughed a lot in the movie) and was quite a entertaining film to watch. That being said, I would still personally pick 2007’s Superbad over this movie, but there’s still plenty to like about Booksmart (thanks to direction and acting talents on this project). Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “highly recommended” one as there’s something to like for everyone…. even if you’re high school days are way behind you. To me, it was definitely a surprise hit; a sort of “hidden gem” of the 2019 movie release lineup. In the end, while the storytelling structure of narrative of high school teenagers hasn’t really changed much, Booksmart finds its tale within a contemporary audience as well as standing true to the ageless cinematic nuances of adolescent teenagers; creating a wholesome and entertaining movie viewing experience.
4.3 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: May 24th, 2019
Reviewed On: June 4th, 2019
Booksmart is 102 minutes long and is rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking – all involving teens