Booksmart (Wilde, 2019)

Social media has been abuzz with debates about Olivia Wilde’s debut, from its marketing campaign to its struggle to make gains at the box office to questions about its diversity (or lack thereof). I want to review Booksmart on its own terms, so forgive me if what I write doesn’t substantially contribute to the current discourse. I’d prefer to block out the noise and stick to a critical impression in keeping with the other films I review. Now that that’s out of the way, I can say that this is a good film, particularly within the teen coming-of-age canon. Its cast of characters are a vibrant set, with a refreshing lack of antagonists and embarrassingly vapid stereotypes that tend to proliferate in films of this kind. Part of its subversive nature is in tackling common stereotypes head on by trying to find humanity in everyone, no matter how ridiculous or unpalatable they may seem on the surface. A simple message, perhaps, but a necessary one considering how an adolescent’s education is still so codependent with its social aspects, which is intrinsically tied to the myriad ways students reflexively judge their peers without making an empathetic effort to find commonalities.

Booksmart actively seeks to dispel the notion that people can only be known from a distance and in tacit ways—that superficial identifiers (fashion, attitude, intellectual aptitude, second-hand gossip, and so forth) only tell a fraction of the story, and that we should instead be more cognizant of intersectional factors that are oftentimes less apparent to the naked eye. There are countless students who suffer on a daily basis because they feel no one knows who they really are, and since they cannot overturn the impression they’ve already made, they’re forced to double-down and fulfill the preordained expectations that plague them. I feel Booksmart is for those kids specifically, and for this reason I’m willing to consider its flaws a little more leniently.

There are flaws, that’s for certain. The adult characters, from Jason Sudeikis’ goofy principal to Jessica Williams’ disconcertingly chill teacher, are all varying shades of insipid because of how broadly they’re written. They’re clearly there for punchlines rather than poignancy. The writers made a conscious decision not to have inspirational role models get in the way of Molly and Amy’s personal quests, and in a way that’s admirable since it goes against our accustomed expectations. So many teen dramedies go the route of the parental/mentor heart-to-heart conversation as a way to quickly resolve much of the conflict, and it’s refreshing to see a film buck the trend and rid itself of such obvious clichés by allowing the teen protagonists to resolve their issues on their own terms.

But on the other hand, having a responsible adult here wouldn’t have harmed anyone’s journey, and might have grounded the film a little more. For it’s a film that’s written very outwardly and skittishly, trying (in my view) a little too hard to attract a youthful audience to the fore. From the never-ending needle drops to the constant cultural referentiality and self-conscious wokeness, it’s a film that can come off as insecure to some because it tries so hard to be both something different and something current without knowing if it’s all going to work. That’s probably the reason that weird animated sequence was included at the midpoint. It’s a true creative risk if there ever was one, but unfortunately it’s a difficult one to justify in the context of the entire film since nothing else comes close to its disruptive energy (one could argue for Billie Lourd’s mysterious trickster of a character, but her brand of unpredictability is more at home with the film’s tone, whereas the animated sequence is much harder to peg down). In short, the film’s boisterousness is both one of its strengths, since it’s tailored to give its audiences one heck of a good time, but it’s also a shortcoming because it positively champs at the bit to make its mark in a way that can admittedly become tiring.

Such eagerness is not an egregious sin, though. It is better to try too hard than not try at all. What I can say for certain is that its sentiments are noble, asking that we better ourselves by embracing the unconventional. It sets us on this path right from the start with its own heroines: two bravely intelligent women—one plus-sized and the other an out lesbian—whose camaraderie and warmth is infectious for the very fact that they openly celebrate their worth rather than allow others to degrade it. Naturally the film gives them space to grow in the way they see the people around them, but their very status as protagonists (as opposed to sidekicks or quirky diversions like Lourd’s Gigi) is the first signal we get that this is going to be a coming-of-age story with different priorities. We learn that it’s not so much about class consciousness like Lady Bird or the anxiety of introversion and social isolation like Eighth Grade. In a way it’s even simpler than that. It’s about seeing “coolness” in our singular idiosyncrasies rather than a general conformist notion of what constitutes such coolness. But to discover those idiosyncrasies in others, one must forge closer connections and not rely on superficial intuitions.

The curious quandary Booksmart finds itself in is that, in order to deliver this message, it must itself conform to a certain idea of coolness as dictated by the current tastes and sensibilities of modern youth (particularly progressive and liberal youth who keep the names of Sasha Obama and Malala Yousafzai close to their lips). It’s performing the very kind of imitative congeniality that its moral advocates against, and to me that’s a fascinating kind of cognitive dissonance, because its conformity to woke culture has worked to a tee. Most critics adore it and will no doubt save a spot for it on their year-end lists, and the majority of viewers are no less smitten by its charms. The film doesn’t seem to sense its inadvertently betraying some of its principles, so maybe the point is moot after all. Let’s just treat it like an uproarious bundle of fun and leave it there, right? And yet, as a critic, it makes the endeavour so much more interesting than it already is. It’s replete with so much contradictory tension and accomplishes its goals though unconventional means, all the while maintaining the façade of a bitingly smart high school buddy comedy. Maybe that’s why its box office numbers are so disappointing: it’s so clever at masking its complexity that people are writing it off as conventional without a second thought.

Why not see it regardless? If there’s any film out there now that can act like a tonic in this mess of a world we live in, Booksmart checks all the right boxes.