- May 30, 2019
- Heather Moore
“It’s like Superbad but with girls.”
That’s the description I have often heard of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart. This is a coming-of-age comedy about two teenage girls about to graduate from high school. These two best friends, Molly and Amy (played superbly by Beanie Feldman and Kaitlyn Dever), have spent all of high school being hyper focused on academic achievement. They have gotten all the best grades. They held all the important class officer positions. They did not party. They did not goof off. And now they are heading into bright futures, confident that their laser focus has allowed them to excel past their peers. But then they receive a rude awakening. Their fellow classmates, whom they had assumed were popular kid burnouts, who had not been as focused and serious as they were, somehow also had bright futures of Ivy Leagues and tech giants ahead of them. Molly and Amy had assumed that you had to choose, either fun or achievement. Yet somehow their peers had managed to do both. How was this possible? The two decide they will not be outdone and embark on a final night of attempted revelry before graduation the next morning. As you may imagine, hijinks ensue.
This narrative set-up likely does feel familiar. It is not dramatically different from other teen comedies. What is unique about it however, is the heart with which Booksmart careens through one night of hilarity and camaraderie. There is something incredibly fresh and sweet about what might otherwise have been an unoriginal female recast of a preexisting trope. Booksmart is not just about teens trying to hook up and get drunk. It is about what it means to be a young woman in the world. Molly and Amy have been shaped by the false dichotomy that women always have to choose. We must choose between being comfortable and being professional. We must choose between being emotional and being taken seriously. We must choose between having fun and succeeding. The inherent error in these “choices” is that they are centered around comparisons to men. The implication is that men are the gold standard and women must imitate them if we want to have a seat at the table. Even the assumption that this movie is an imitation of Superbad reflects our culture’s expectations of female stories. That the best we can do is to copy what men have already done.
And that is where I left Booksmart feeling unexpectedly moved. This story does something totally different, something all its own. It is about the better ways that women can relate to each other. Molly and Amy are incredibly supportive of each other, they actively cheer each other on. And when they are wrong, they talk about it honestly. It is about not writing people off as being one-dimensional. All of the characters in this movie have multiple layers and are allowed to be more than just a high school stereotype. It is about the vulnerability of youth and the insecurities that you feel when you have no idea what you are doing. Even the scenes that would normally be crass and vulgar in any other R-rated comedy somehow maintain a sense of emotion and innocence. The whole movie feels genuine and compassionate. There are no cheap laughs at the expense of others. No exploitative/dehumanizing jokes. Everyone gets to be treated with value and dignity.
One of Wilde’s goals for the filming of the movie was to create a set where the actors felt comfortable and supported. Her vision for the way the movie was made translated directly to the screen in how the characters were depicted. This is what can happen when women are not held hostage to false dichotomies. We can create something new and funny and generous. We are not limited to copying the work of others but can imagine something else entirely. Booksmart is not for everyone. But like Molly and Amy, it is a testament to what is possible when women stop choosing and start living.
Content guide: As mentioned, this movie is rated R. It contains multiple references to masturbation and sexuality. It also contains strong language and some drug use. This will certainly not be appropriate for all audiences. However, I personally strongly dislike crude comedies and this is not one of those comedies. Also as a college minister and someone who works with Millennials and Gen Z full-time, this is one of the most accurate depictions of the way young people think and engage that I have seen. This will not justify the content for all viewers, but it is a snapshot of today’s you