Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)

Two close childhood friends, Amy and Molly, are about to graduate from high school. After graduating, Amy plans to travel to Botswana for a few months while Molly has been admitted to a prestigious school. The two of them have a reputation for being overachievers, choosing not to party and instead focusing on their studies. While using a restroom, Molly overhears her peers making fun of her. Molly then realizes that she and Amy didn’t have enough fun in high school and should use the remaining time before graduation and go to an end-of-year party being held by a popular kid named Nick.

From the beginning, Molly is shown to be a headstrong person. Despite her lack of socialization with anyone other than Amy, it’s only natural that her initial reaction to hearing her peers insult her is to wave her college admittance in their face. Her boasting backfires on her in the worst way possible. All three of them reveal that, in between bouts of fulfilling outrageous dares and vandalizing the bathroom walls with the words of foolhardy prophets, they too were developing skills that would make them highly appealing to big-name colleges. Their subsequent admittance is a reality that has come to pass. One girl admits that she is going to Harvard despite the famous institution being her fifth choice. Even the dimwitted 20-year-old graduate proved to be a savant in the art of programming, being hired by Google fresh out of the gate.

One can see why for someone like Molly, this would be an incredibly difficult pill to swallow. She and Amy wore their academic achievements as their badges of honor. For every single moment up until now, they could take comfort in the fact that, as rowdy as her peers were, she had one undeniable advantage over them. This advantage is rendered completely meaningless when she realizes her peers can keep pace with her in addition to retaining what she and most of the audience would consider the shallow, style-over-substance popularity that often serves as a foil to the discreet qualities of a typical book-smart protagonist.

With only a precious few days before graduation, Molly and Amy decide to do something they would never have dreamed of doing mere days before – go to the popular kid’s party. Molly is determined to go the second she realizes her peers are more than a match for her intellect. Although Amy is less convinced, she does ultimately relent when Molly points out that Ryan will be attending the party as well. Ryan is the name of a girl Amy has a crush on, though she never worked up the nerve to ask her out at any point.

From the onset, there are a lot of things I admire about this film. With the countless films throughout the 2010s promoting diversity, it was a nice change of pace to see a gay character introduced so matter-of-factly. Indeed, Amy’s infatuation with Ryan isn’t treated any different than a straight crush. It goes to show how much progress has been made in the medium given that even ten years prior, the film would have been subject to a lot of controversy. The premise itself is an excellent subversion of expectations. With every single student Molly asks having a bright future ahead of them, it makes the case that you really cannot judge a book by its cover. In a subtle way, it makes the case against pigeonholing people based on the brief snippets you see of them in a professional setting – or even a semi-professional one such as a school.

With this knowledge, the protagonists are ready to leave their comfort zone. There’s only one problem with their venture – they haven’t the faintest idea where the party actually is. Because they never bothered to socialize with their peers outside of school-related activities, they have no one to ask. When they try, the recipients merely assume they’re contacting them for academic reasons and ignore them. What follows could be considered an odyssey of sorts as Molly and Amy set out for Nick’s party. They contact a Lyft and are picked up by a wealthy classmate, Jared, who erroneously assumes they want to go to his own party. When this party, quite literally, turns out to be dead in the water, they then contact a second Lyft driver, who happens to be their principal. He drops them off at another classmate’s house. Said classmate, George, is hosting a murder mystery party. After a hallucinatory episode courtesy of the drugs they inadvertently took at Jared’s party, they escape the house.

In the hands of the unskilled, Booksmart could easily have turned into an anti-intellectualism allegory, but thankfully, the writers deftly avoided this pitfall. This is because when Molly and Amy fail to reach Nick’s party for the second time, they take it upon themselves to conduct a little research. Specifically, they go to the library and look through the various livestreams of the party and see if they can pin down where the house is based off of various clues. When one kid attempts to smash multiple pizza boxes at once, they visit the establishment from which they arrived. They then, in a matter of speaking, hold up a delivery man and demand him to tell them where he delivered the pizzas. Unfortunately, Amy leaves her phone in the deliveryman’s car, but Molly’s has just enough to send out one last call to her teacher and friend Ms. Fine. She is then able to get them to Nick’s party and even gives them a change of clothes.

In a traditional film, this would be the moment when all of the pieces fall into place. Amy would finally work up the courage to talk to Ryan while Molly admits her secret crush on Nick. At first, this is exactly what happens, but Booksmart continues to provide a subversive narrative when Amy discovers Nick and Ryan making out. She then wants to leave the party, but Molly, unaware of Nick’s transgression, assumes her friend lost her nerve. Although the two leads provide good foils for each other, the narrative deconstructs the dynamic when Amy reveals she intends to stay in Botswana for a year rather than a few months. She kept this a secret because she thought if Molly knew, her friend would attempt to talk her out of it. Calling her controlling, a loud fight between the two of them ensues, which ends with Amy storming off to the bathroom.

The two of them then truly learn what has been a central theme throughout the film – that there is more to people beyond their trace surface elements. Amy meets Hope, a student considered cruel by her peers. Despite being combative towards each other at first, the two begin making out, though Amy vomits on Hope when they attempt to have sex. It is around this time that the police arrive to arrest the partygoers, and in a daring move, Amy provides a distraction in order for her peers to escape. Molly is driven home by Annabelle, a popular student who has a reputation for being promiscuous. They bond when they reveal the stereotypes they suffer from. Molly is then surprised when she looks at her phone and sees her peers talk about how amazing Amy was for distracting the police.

Molly visits Amy in jail and the two reconcile – the former apologizing for being manipulative. With graduation slated to take place that very day, it would appear Amy has no choice but to miss it. Thankfully for them, Molly espied a “Wanted” poster on the way in. It turns out the pizza delivery man who provided unusually specific tips on how to hold someone hostage and even had a gun in his car was, in fact, a serial killer. After trading information with the police, they manage to take Jared’s car to graduation, running multiple red lights and crashing through a fence to reach it. Taking what she learned throughout the film, Molly gives an improvised, heavily abridged speech and kisses Jared. She receives thunderous applause and a few days later, Hope gives Amy her number. Molly then drives Amy to the airport and after a heartfelt goodbye, the latter jumps in front of the car, revealing they still have a few hours before her flight. Naturally, they take advantage of this opportunity to get pancakes.

Booksmart is a well-written comedy with excellent acting performances and memorable leads. Its main theme is that there is much more to people than what appears on the surface, and I think the same applies to the film itself. From a superficial standpoint, it would appear to be a typical raunchy 2010s comedy with a plethora of snappy one-liners, but actually seeing it to its conclusion reveals it has quite a lot of heart and sincerity to it. Sure, the situations in which the protagonists find themselves are frequently outlandish, but it’s as much a slice-of-life coming-of-age story as it is a wacky comedy.

Both leading women, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, are absolutely perfect in their roles. I especially find myself giving credit to Ms. Feldstein because while she received praise for her performance in Lady Bird, she was barely noticeable in that film. Here, she turns in a highly charismatic, dynamic performance and can easily command a scene. Of course, the film wouldn’t have been complete without Ms. Dever’s own quieter performance, which provides a perfect foil as Amy to Molly’s sheer presence. Whether or not you’re a comedy fan, watching Olivia Wilde’s solid debut is highly recommended.

Final Score: 7/10

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