Film

'Booksmart' Is the Best Comedy of 2019 So Far

Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart, featuring a lineup of superbly talented young performers, revels in a utopian view of progressive America.

Booksmart
Olivia Wilde

Annapurna Pictures

24 May 2019 (US)

Other

No one could feasibly accuse high school movies (also known as teen films) of being particularly nuanced. Thinking back to the era of Pretty in Pink (John Hughes, 1986) or other decades-old mainstays of the canon, a reputation for regressive politics, or at least crude humor rooted in stereotypes, is more likely to jump out. (If you widen the barrier to include college movies, this is especially true.) It's fair to say that, all films considered, the high school movie canon roundly adheres to the status quo, glamorizing the exploits of (mostly) white kids as they navigate their clearly defined social paths.

But this view, while true in some regards, fails to see the whole picture. High school films are also often satires; if they seem to celebrate wealthy white America, they also, to varying degrees, mock the constraints of the system and call out the ludicrous strictures that shape kids into adults living in a flawed world.

Alternately, some high school films focus on the plight of less privileged students. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006) and Freedom Writers (Richard LaGravenese,2007) for example, are undoubtedly high school films, but the travails — drugs, poverty, prison — are far more lucid and grim, and the resulting films are dramas, not comedies. Naturally, there are countless examples of films that fit in between these two poles, but the extremes stick out. A picky film buff wonders: Are there good examples of high school films that have the best of both worlds — comedies that are also politically astute and outspoken, or dramas that lighten up the melodrama bogging down films about minority communities?

Booksmart, the new comedy from first-time director Olivia Wilde, doesn't answer this question. It's definitely a hilarious film, stocked with tremendous young talent (many of whom are queer actors or actors of color), but it's only superficially political. It updates the staid identity politics of high school films simply by having kids of all stripes peacefully coexist together, but it doesn't really acknowledge the inherent differences in the lived experiences of their daily lives. It lives in a post-racial, queer-friendly world where opportunity — for future success, for harmless debauchery — is equal for all.

Billie Lourd as Gigi and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy (IMDB)


The film opens on Molly (Beanie Feldstein of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig, 2017), the class president and valedictorian, meditating and listening to a motivational tape ("fuck those losers, fuck them in their stupid fucking faces") in a bedroom strewn with posters of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other icons of modern liberalism. She hears a car horn and she runs outside to catch a ride with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who is similarly bookish but much more low-key. At school, they try to tie up loose ends with their disinterested principal (Jason Sudeikis) and adopt a haughty, no-nonsense approach to the last day before graduation. Molly is headed to Yale next fall, and Amy to Columbia, and so their work seems to be done here. But in the bathroom, Molly overhears some other students making fun of her and confronts them, only to find out that they managed to get into great schools or lock down high-paying jobs without sacrificing the fun of their high school years.

The resulting story, like Greg Mottola's Superbad (2007) or Maggie Carey's The To Do List (2013), follows the girls as they embark on a mad dash to make up for lost time. But although sex and sexuality are part of the story (Amy, a lesbian, hopes for a last-minute chance with her crush), it's not the point. The girls ultimately just want to fit in and to understand their classmates as more than just dumb jocks and party monsters. Booksmart has some of the raunch that naturally comes along with sexual discovery, but with it also comes an egalitarian sense of comfort. In this utopian ideal of Los Angeles, there's very little real judgment or subjugation; all of the kids, regardless of whether or not they really like each other, go to the same parties, hang out in the same circles, and support one another on graduation day.

Booksmart's greatest strengths are in its actors and its script, both of which help elevate these admittedly low-stakes shenanigans into undeniably entertaining territory. As you might find quoted in a yearbook, the journey is the destination; Molly and Amy are armed with vague ambitions of curing their FOMO (that is, anxiety) and yet the point, if there is one, seems to be in convincing the world of their worth as friends and lovers, not just students.

Nico Hiraga as Tanner and Billie Lourd as Gigi (IMDB)

After the revelation that her hard-partying classmates have also found post-graduate success, Molly convinces Amy that they need to go to a party themselves. They go to three: One on an enormous yacht owned by a swaggering rich kid, Jared (Skyler Gisondo, hilarious), one hosted by the theatrical queer kids George and Alan (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute), and a final party with the rest of their class, including their two crushes (Molly has a furtive crush on a popular kid named Nick, played by Mason Gooding). Slowly, they learn to see their classmates as people, not just roadblocks to future success. The weird rich girl, Gigi (Billie Lourd), is spontaneous and fun, Jared is secretly a virgin and Amy's crush is tragically straight. By simply showing up, they've lifted the veil.

Booksmart's progressive utopia isn't as much an exercise in wishful thinking as it is a fever dream where liberal ideals are status quo. There are no real tensions; Molly and Amy make stupid mistakes, and yet none of them come close to jeopardizing their bright futures. The supporting cast, we are similarly assured, have white collar futures for themselves as well, regardless of how much they've partied or how much sex they've had in high school. Instead of playing into the well-established trope of high school as hell, the film lets these kids revel in purgatory — in a liminal space of harmless mischief before arriving at the promised gates of heaven.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a high school film that glosses over some of life's more sobering realities, and the expectation of nuanced politics isn't something that critics should set as the established barrier to entry. Booksmart won't indoctrinate viewers into supporting progressive causes if they don't already, nor can it double as a particularly prescient treatise on the realities of our current political moment. These low-stakes adventures of suburban privilege and meritocracy make the film more of a hollowed-out form of escapism than an effective manifesto. If you'd like to see the latter, you'll likely be disappointed. But for fans of the former, brace yourself for the best comedy of 2019 so far.

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