Updated: Jan 23
Written by Grace Leahy
I admit: I didn’t see Booksmart in theaters.
But, nine months later, I find myself desperate to have some part in rallying support for this awkwardly hilarious, female-led, coming-of-age, finally 21st-century rollercoaster ride.
Comedies aren’t my go-to, usually leaving me off-put by just a few too many dick jokes. But Booksmart doesn’t need the dick-joke crutch. It strikes a balance between masturbation cracks and Ken Burns quips, between over-the-top high school cliches and quiet, emotional moments. Not to mention, there are some hysterical guest appearances by Jason Sudeikis and Lisa Kudrow.
Yet, Booksmart’s premise is classic -- the last day of classes. Two high-achieving high-school seniors, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) come to a brutal realization when their class-wide pact not to disclose college plans is broken: the cool kids got soccer scholarships and 1560s on the SATs. And they partied. “They did both,” Molly seethes. “We’re the only assholes that did one.”
Naturally, viewers compare Booksmart to the high-school-nerds’-last-effort-to-party classic Superbad, made even easier by the fact that star Jonah Hill, who stars alongside Michael Cera, is Feldstein’s brother. While in some ways it’s an honor to be compared to the buddy-comedy canon, it also brings up just how deeply our ideas of gender and genre are intertwined. “We need to stop saying that girl movies are just spin-offs of boy movies,” Feldstein said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Why are films with male stars considered to be universal, while films headlined by women are chick flicks? I can’t “relate” to dick jokes, so why can’t men relate to jokes about menstruation?
Molly herself is sharp, in-charge, ambitious, overbearing, and now…nominated for a Golden Globe. Amy, her other half, is sweet, free-spirited, awkward. And a lesbian. The reason I mention this, though, isn’t just a way to check a box and be welcomed into the diversified film club. It’s a part of her journey, but by no means is it its center. Amy’s sexual preferences don’t create any tension with Molly, and together, the two are hilarious, raucous, electric, and heartwarming. They’re unapologetic in their spirit… and their use of expletives.
Written and directed by women, it makes sense that Booksmart celebrates female friendship first and foremost. But really, I think, the film celebrates adolescent friendship in its many, awkward forms. A lot of buddy movies develop their protagonists at the expense of other characters, but in this case, the ensemble cast is critical to the trajectory of the film. Notable performances included 1) the duo of annoying-turned-endearing Mr. Moneybags Jared (Skylar Gisondo) and his debatably insane but liberated friend Gigi (Billie Catharine Lourd), and 2) the stylish and in-charge pair of George (Noah Galvin) and Alan (Austin Crute). “We are not one-dimensional,” Molly almost yells at Amy at the outset of the film. “We are smart and fun.” As the night unfolds, characters prove this to us over and over: people can be more than one thing.
Stemming from Olivia Wilde’s brilliant, nuanced direction, the film exists in a world of its own. Everything from the sweeping camerawork, colorful sets, and thrilling car chase sequences to the deterioration of hierarchical high-school dynamics and casually diverse cast (Did you even try, Superbad?) creates a near-utopian vision of what high school could look like as our culture moves forward: not just diverse, but tolerant. I recognize that Booksmart takes place in the pocket of woke liberal California, and this downplays real-world tensions. But, for a couple hours, isn’t it nice to imagine the world as more inclusive than it is?
The spirit of Booksmart, to me, is best demonstrated in a time-honored high-school girl dilemma: Amy and Molly emerge wearing the same outfit. After a moment of stunned silence, where the viewer (myself included) expects an altercation, there’s an onslaught of compliments, each girl outdoing the other. “Who allowed you to be this beautiful?” “Who allowed you to take my breath away?" This is the energy of this film from the get-go. Though it can be a winding road, we do best when we lift each other up.
So were there dick jokes? Yes. But it’s gonna take hundreds more where that came from to match male-led comedies. Bring it on.