' ' Cinema Romantico: Booksmart

Tuesday, June 04, 2019


Though director Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” suggests a gender-flipped “Superbad”, with its two party-seeking principal characters Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) rendered as agents of their own adventure rather than mere objects of affection by some lusty boys, the latter’s own influences, conscious or not, stretched all the way back to the seminal John Hughes teen comedies of the 1980s and so do Wilde’s. Her feature film debut evokes not only “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, as an adventure expressly about having fun, but “The Breakfast Club” too, tossing a bunch of archetypes in a basket, shaking it, and seeing what falls out.

“Booksmart” opens with Amy and Molly pausing before heading off to their last day of school by busting a few moves to Sam Spiegel’s “To Whom It May Concern.“ Eventually, however, the song falls away and we see the two B.F.F.s silently getting into the groove, demonstrating how they are tuned into a frequency only they hear, underlined upon their arrival at school where even amidst so much teenage hurly-burly they move in tandem with an ease evoking four years of blocking everyone out. That tendency, however, fuels their Call to Adventure, a scene demonstrating the four-person screenplay’s knack for mutating tropes. Though the Call begins with Molly in a bathroom stall overhearing mean things about her domineering personality, she steps out and accosts them rather than remaining sheltered in the stall, arrogantly citing her straight As and admission to Yale, only to be taken aback upon learning they have admission to good schools too. This does not change Molly so much as change her perspective, a popping of the bubble in which she has lived for four years, emblemized in an ensuing sequence where in the high school hallway, palpably perched on the edge of chaos, a water balloon erupts in slow motion on Molly’s face.

This sequence is illustrative of Wilde’s oft-boisterous, occasionally excessive aesthetic as “Booksmart” tracks Amy and Molly’s assumption-shattering crusade to find a party across town in an effort to relive all of high school in one night. This crusade manifests itself in broad comedy and the fantastical, to fluctuating effect, where an extended sequence of the two girls getting busted watching porn is made as much by Feldstein’s hand-over-heart reaction in long shot as it is by the actual reveal proves more successful than a hallucinatory sequence that Wilde has said was inspired by “The Big Lebowski” which perhaps inadvertently explains why it feels apart from the world of “Booksmart.” Yet such highs and lows feel intrinsically true to the high school experience, like Amy’s come to Jesus moment where she dives into a backyard pool full of hope and wonder only to surface seconds later and be filled with melancholy and regret. And though Wilde sometimes lets music drown out dialogue, as if trying to cover for a script deficiency, this can also yield rich rewards, where obscuring the words of Amy and Molly’s climactic airing of grievances illuminates how what they are saying is not as important as them saying it all.

The camera movement in this scene, swinging from one to the other and back again, suggests the yin and yang of their whole relationship, how they work because of their differences, and how those differences require no corrective. Indeed, Molly’s air never fundamentally changes. If her imperiousness is called on the carpet, her inherent ambition is never derided, a delicate balance that Feldstein brings to life in a performance as bawdy as it is likable. Amy, on the other hand, while openly out of the closet, is also romantically hesitant a la any teen in love, and that hesitancy epitomizes the emotional cracks we can occasionally see fueling the eventual blow-up with her bestie. Her politics, meanwhile, glimpsed in activist bumper stickers and a forthcoming summer trip to Botswana feel at once not totally rounded out and just right, a socially conscious teenager who is still learning.

If that political vagueness feels a natural part of the character’s youth, the movie’s overall attitude toward class, on the other hand, is oddly incomplete. It’s impossible not to notice the prevalence of wealth in the ultimate party’s set design or the rich kid duo of Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Gigi (Billie Lourd), never mind how every character can afford a wealthy school, the script never quite making clear if every kid’s college admission is based on merit or privilege. This might not have been a problem, simply an embrace of the movie’s elysian view, except Molly and Amy getting a Lyft ride from their Principal (Jason Sudeikis), supplementing his meager income with a side job, suggests an awareness of a class divide that remains unexplored.

This lingering social hierarchy fail lets some air out of “Booksmart’s” message of community, though it still rights the ancient wrongs of “The Breakfast Club”, which challenged stereotypes yet succumbed to them anyway, like Allison’s magical makeover, as if coming to a détente by putting on a different mask. In “Booksmart”, on the other hand, all masks eventually fall away – or, more accurately, are revealed to be projections of those who are looking. And though in wrapping up the movie comes off the rails with one too many ruses and resolutions, it’s already achieved lift off, obliterating archetypes as it envisions the kind of adolsecent utopia that was but a gleam in Shermer High’s eye.


Ashley Kuehl said...

Well, they do show Molly's apartment, which is not so fancy. And she doesn't have a car, so her friend drives her to school every day and parks in the class president spot. So I think Molly isn't rich. But you're right that the class situation could be explored further.

Nick Prigge said...

Yes, true. It wasn't Molly's situation that bothered me (which, as you say, IS shown) but the other kids who are going away to fancy schools. I THINK we were supposed to think that they DID get in on merit, not connections or money, which plays to the shattering of archetypes. But there was a lack of clarity there that didn't tip the whole thing out of balance for me but that I still think needed to be addressed.