Sunday, August 25, 2019

"Booksmart": review

A 2019 teen comedy starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as two quirky, nerdy best friends who are now seniors in high school, "Booksmart" is actress Olivia Wilde's very first directorial effort. As with the myriad teen comedies that have come before, the story involves seniors who realize they have one last chance to touch greatness. Unlike those previous comedies, though, "greatness" doesn't involve losing one's virginity: it involves partying.

Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) have been best friends since forever. Studious and determined to get into the best universities, they've spent their entire high-school careers hitting the books, shunning fun activities, joining all the best clubs and societies, and doing everything they can to ensure academic success. For four years, it's been one concentrated dose of seriousness. It's while Molly is in the restroom, though, that she finds out from three of her classmates—whom she scorns for their seemingly wild, partying ways—that they also managed to get into prestigious universities, all while having fun and living life.

Furious, Molly declares to Amy that the two friends have wasted their time studying when they could have been partying this entire time, and with only one night before graduation, Molly decides that the two of them need to hit classmate Nick's party because everyone is going to be there. In effect, the Quest to Lose One's Virginity is replaced by the Quest to Have Fun For Once, and the rest of the movie follows a winding, "Harold and Kumar"-style path as the girls ineptly try to figure out where the party is and how to get there. This results in many side trips and misadventures. There will be drugs and trippy hallucinations. There will be clumsy attempts at sex, culminating in embarrassing episodes of drug-induced vomiting. There will be awkward moments involving lesbian porn and the school principal, who encounters the girls in the course of performing his other job as a Lyft driver.

"Booksmart" follows the usual simple-but-nonlinear template of most American teen comedies, so it doesn't really break any new ground in that sense. The film is reminiscent of 80s-era movies in terms of its major plot points, and reminiscent of 90s comedies in terms of its occasional-but-gleeful surrealism. The rapidfire, catty line deliveries of some of the minor characters made me think of the TV show "Glee," which excelled at such witty repartee. Director Wilde proves she has a great sense of comic timing in terms of how scenes are set up and edited, and the viewer is left with the impression that the actors all had a lot of fun on set. This is a hilarious movie, and while some critics have noted that "Booksmart" primarily targets young women, I can safely say the movie is a human story that doesn't pander to a particular demographic the way it could have, had it gone the preachy route.

This is actually a point worth dwelling on. "Booksmart" does rope in certain social issues, such as being the homosexual daughter of conservative-Christian parents (Amy is an out-of-the-closet lesbian; bestie Molly, meanwhile, is hetero and secretly hot for partier Nick), global poverty, feminism, harassment and rape, among other things, but it treats these issues more as tropes that move the plot along, not as cudgels with which to hit the audience over the head. The idea taken most seriously in this movie is the friendship between Molly and Amy, two Gen-Z girls on the verge of young-adulthood who belatedly discover that they're becoming very different people who nevertheless still love each other. The movie's treatment of social issues is so blithe and un-self-conscious, in fact, that Amy's supposedly Jesus-freak parents are portrayed as rather bland and normal, without there being any scripture-quoting or Bible-thumping. Mom and Dad are simply a little awkward about the notion that their little girl likes girls. All of this came as a relief to me, and I see it as an authentic reflection of how Generation Z kids generally take the world in stride: they're post-9/11 youths who have grown up with the internet, social media, and the kaleidoscopic postmodern jumble of 2010s-era culture as a normal part of life.

So let's talk about the actors. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, as Molly and Amy respectively, have perfect chemistry together in the roles of best friends. The movie trivia I read is that Olivia Wilde asked the girls to live together for a while to form a rapport; this must have been a successful strategy because the result is on screen for all to see, including certain hilarious moments that, according to the young actresses, were improvised on the spot. Feldstein and Dever make us care for Molly and Amy; we end up wanting the best for them, and it hurts us during those scenes when the girls fight. In the end, Feldstein and Dever give performances that are solid and deep. I'd happily watch them both in other movies, either separately or as a pair. Two supporting actors deserve shout-outs as well. First is Skyler Gisondo (for a while, he played young Shawn Spencer on the TV show "Psych") as cheerful rich kid Jared, a cluelessly optimistic dude who smiles reflexively but is disliked by his classmates. Skyler gets some of the best lines in the film, and his delivery is pitch-perfect. Second is Billie Lourd—Carrie Fisher's daughter—who plays Gigi, Jared's kind-of girlfriend. Gigi is portrayed as a magical character in the film: she has the uncanny ability to appear wherever Molly and Amy are, seemingly teleporting from place to place at will, almost as if the drugs she does have given her theurgic powers. Lourd's performance is easily as good as Gisondo's; she had me laughing out loud several times.

I had little clue what to expect before I watched "Booksmart"; I had seen a YouTube review or two, and had read online reviews praising the film, but when I finally watched the movie for myself, the actual experience turned out to be enjoyable. I like that "Booksmart" doesn't hit you over the head with any of a number of potential social-justice messages; I like that the movie treats lesbianism and being overweight as simple facts of life without making a big deal about either trait; I like that Olivia Wilde—whom I love as an actress and as a comic talent—has proved to be as gifted behind the camera as she is in front of it. (You'll recall a recent review of Wilde here.) I think "Booksmart" is a movie with a heart; in essence, it's a story about two friends whose friendship gets tested over the course of a very wild night. If you're fine with rapidfire humor and Gen-Z culture, go watch the girls' adventure for yourself with my enthusiastic blessing.

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