By Grace Zhou
Ambitious, smart, funny, outspoken, overbearing, snide, controlling and endearing are just some of the adjectives that define Molly, the main character of “Booksmart.” In the first few minutes of the film, it’s tempting to try to box her into one of the character tropes we’ve seen time and time again in high school movies: she’s going to Yale, so she must be the nerd. No wait — she’s the bossy girl. No wait — she’s the mean girl. Then you realize, hopefully before she encourages her queer best friend to consider scissoring, that she doesn’t fit into any box. No one in “Booksmart” does. The film, amidst its excessively funny jokes and enviously creative scenes, successfully captures the complexity, sexuality and lovability of teenage girls in a way that no other film quite has.
Molly’s best friend is Amy, who is the complete opposite of her: quiet, introverted and queer. What they do have in common is that they’re smartest people at their school — or so they believe. For four years, they studied hard in order to earn spots at Ivy League colleges, and Molly carries her admittance to Yale as a badge of superiority. Her world comes crashing down, however, when she finds out that her partying peers are also headed to elite colleges. Aiming to make up for all the fun they sacrificed, Molly and Amy decide to attend the biggest party the night before graduation. It doesn’t turn out to be that easy.
Playing best friends, Beanie Feldstein (Molly) and Kaitlyn Dever (Amy) take a wonderful script and bring it to life with some of best chemistry I’ve seen on screen recently. “Booksmart” is equally about the beauty and power of female friendships as it is about high school. Together, Molly and Amy are raunchy and unstoppable. I can’t express how thoroughly enjoying it is to watch two smart, accomplished girls support each other. At one point in the movie, the two separately put on similar sequined dresses, stare at each other, and then proceed to take turns firing humorous compliments — not argue over who should be the one to change outfits. It’s refreshing and empowering to watch two girls embody proud feminists (they use “Malala” as a code word) and build each other up.
I love how queerness is an important part of Amy’s character, but that’s a non-issue in her close, intimate friendship with Molly. “Booksmart” treats queer relationships as completely normal and acceptable. The film’s R rating further allows it to positively explore the sexuality of its college-bound characters. Whereas “Pretty in Pink” didn’t venture much further than a kiss, in the last two years alone we’ve seen “Blockers,” “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade” push the envelope in portraying female sexuality on screen. Like these movies, “Booksmart” further breaks down the taboo surrounding teenage girls and sex. Hilarious jokes about masturbation, porn and first times ensue — because smart, ambitious girls who have planned every detail of their futures can enjoy crushes and butterflies too.
Some movies invest so much charm in a character or two that they seem to run out of it for the supporting cast. Or the films assume, incorrectly, that audiences can only be won over by so many characters before they become overwhelmed. “Booksmart” proves this isn’t true. The film’s team of female writers — Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman — pack in an impressive amount of fascinating and memorable supporting characters. Each one is so delightfully quirky I didn’t mind when the film took small detours from the main story to offer quick, hilarious glimpses into their lives. Molly and Amy radiate strength, humor and endearment in every scene they’re in, but the supporting characters equally shine. All have an element of mystery around them: Jared, played by Skyler Gisondo, is a sweet, try-hard rich kid, and his father supposedly hired a prostitute for him. Billie Lourd steals scenes playing zany party girl Gigi. There’s also an adult character who was banned from Jamba Juice, a hot girl who provides “roadside assistance,” and so much more. They make the world richer, and I walked out of the theater wishing I could meet the dozen or so characters in real life.
Admittedly, it’s easy and helpful to refer to characters with snappy epithets like “hot girl” and “rich kid.” “The Breakfast Club” structured high school so that it feels natural to group people into categories. But “Booksmart” is refreshing in that it leans into the stereotypes and then slowly deconstructs them. There is more than one smart girl, mean girl and hot person (frequently overlapping), and by virtue of having multiples of one type of character, their individual uniquenesses are highlighted. This adds to the alluring power of the characters and makes each one unpredictable.
As much as “Booksmart” subverts character tropes, however, it still has some of the typical high school movie beats. Sometimes it reminded me of other films — the dirty duo in “Superbad,” the party scene in “Eighth Grade” and the awakenings in “Lady Bird” came to mind. But “Booksmart” creatively interprets familiar tropes to make them feel innovative — for example, the characters accidentally ingest drugs. I won’t get into too much detail, but a scene involving Barbie dolls was particularly jaw-dropping.
“Booksmart” is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, but you wouldn’t know it from watching it. Scenes, when they’re not designed to make you laugh, are crafted to pulsate with anticipation and empathy. In high school, every mistake feels like the end of the world, and Wilde beautifully reflects this in her film. Scenes of Molly walking through a hallway and Amy swimming in a pool are artfully drawn out to make you feel how passionate and emotional these moments are to them. The soundtrack, with everything from mellow classics to pumping electronic music, perfectly supplements the visuals and adds to the upbeat intensity of the film.
I’m tempted to advise that you to let go of any expectations before seeing this delightful, crazy-in-a-good-way film. But I think holding onto them even harder will make “Booksmart” and all of its subversions an even more enjoyable, feminist and unpredictable ride.
Contact Grace Zhou at gkzhou ‘at’ stanford.edu.