Sunday, June 2, 2019



An extraordinary two-hander (that occasionally fails to be an ensemble), Booksmart is the kind of fun, likeable comedy they ought to make more of, at least if they want me to bother going to theaters to see a comedy in the first place.

Directed by Olivia Wilde
Written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman

Spoiler alert: mild

I mean, I get it: you wanted a high school sex comedy that you didn't have to make excuses for.  And by "you," and I obviously mean "you, a critical community that's embraced Booksmart as a breath of fresh air" and not "you, the general audiences that have avoided actually seeing Booksmart, thereby ensuring that it shall not be any particular success."  Which is a terrible fucking shame!  Because Booksmart may not be great and it may have legitimate, serious narrative problems that nobody seems to have addressed, but it is a breath of fresh air, and it's a better-than-average high school sex comedy, not to mention a better-than-average comedy generally, particularly if you're sampling the genre from the last ten or so years.

Representing Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, Booksmart concerns itself with what a lot of high school sex comedies do, which is a quest across suburbia to make it to a bacchanalian party (though I'm not sure high school kids actually do that too much anymore), in order to acquire the sex.  The difference is this time it's girls, and though I'm relatively sure this isn't as novel as people make it, I am drawing a blank on another one.

The girls are Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), highly simpatico types who've found themselves drawn together these past four years into what appears to be an impenetrable bubble of friendship that hasn't let anybody else in or, for that matter, let either one of them out.  On the last day of their senior year, however, this bubble gets pierced, when Molly discovers that despite the way that she and Amy have spent their high school lives dedicated to endless studying and resume-padding, so they can take their rightful place amongst America's elite, all the classmates she thought were idiots and losers and sex addicts have, nevertheless, gotten into the exact same damn Yales and Columbias they have.  (Shades of what might be the last great high school comedy—though it is not a sex comedy—Orange County.)  Her world shaken, Molly determines to make up for four years of joylessness by spending their last night as high school students going balls to the wall at the cool kids' graduation party, hosted by Nick (Mason Gooding), vice-president to Molly's school president, a jock she considers as dumb as they come, which is why she does not know where this party is and why she and Amy will have a hell of a time finding it.  You'll also notice Amy doesn't seem to have much input into this decision, though Molly introduces a carrot for Amy in the form of Amy's impossible crush object, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), and despite knowing intellectually that she's been gay since forever, Amy's cumulative sexual experience so far has amounted exclusively to molesting a small stuffed animal.

Which makes the otherwise-random appearance of the same kind of plush panda in an episode of one of this film's several co-writer's, Sarah Haskins', old web-series "Target Women" take on a whole new valence.

Anyway, that's the kind of detail that Booksmart revels in, being every inch as crass as anything in its genre, usually to amusing-enough effect.  Such fun fills in the gaps in the structure it takes on for its quest plot, involving our duo traipsing from party to party as each lead turns out to be false, presenting—though without quite owning it—as a taxonomy of high school types.  These include the lonely, insanely rich boy (Skyler Gisondo, very much playing to type; I forgot his character's name, but I called him "Good Upchuck") who's rented out a boat for his graduation party, despite having almost literally no friends.  Across town, there's the dweebiest theater dweebs who ever dweebed (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute), who have decided that graduation night is the perfect opportunity to dictatorially force everyone they know to participate in their murder mystery dinner in full regalia.

Where Booksmart kind of trips over itself, though, is that it has way more on its mind than just its quest plot, and cannot content itself with the inevitable reversals that occur once that quest is accomplished (is it possible that most of what they needed, they had all along? my friend, it is downright probable, though Booksmart is nuanced enough to concede that they have to evolve somewhat beyond their friendship's limits to be whole people).  For starters, and the most appealing thing about it, at least in terms of the how it builds its world, is that it centers itself upon the experience of being a student at what may as well have been explicitly named Progressive Utopia High—the liability issues alone boggle the mind when we arrive at a unisex high school bathroom—but Booksmart is happy, and makes me happy, to be more of an aspirational fantasy of what its makers would prefer than a realist depiction of anywhere, which of course is true of almost every successful high school comedy ever made.  (The downside is that it still can't get by without stereotypes, and as much as this is a very good movie for lesbians, it's possible to wonder if its "theater dweebs," campy as the day is long and probably the only characters in the whole film who express the slightest misogynistic attitude, scrape up against the side of homophobic.  Meanwhile, there is something a little unnerving about a movie that's sending a half dozen of its characters into the Ivy League, but doesn't have shit to say about class or the brazen entitlement of its heroines, which is one reason why it's like, but not as good, as Orange County.  Of course, Wilde's OC experience was somewhat different.)

Anyway, this mostly-empathetic attitude also means that Booksmart wants to encompass its vast array of side characters, and recognize their agency and decency—it has antagonists, but absolutely no villains—but it has an awful weird Goddamn way of pursuing this mission, giving all its one-note secondary characters "arcs," or arc-like trajectories, that it demands be completed in two scenes and five lines apiece, because it simply does not have time or interest for anything more.  The approach mirrors a bizarrely uncalibrated tonal register, that only occasionally demonstrates that it cares about the small human side of things: Booksmart spends so much time being Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Superbad and a highly-contained vehicle for Amy and Molly's personal excellent adventure that it's jarring as hell when it suddenly decides to open up to its cast and be The Breakfast Club instead.  I've seen it compared, oddly enough, to After Hours—not a high school comedy, and the diameteric opposite of an ensemble comedy, but it's a comparison that holds up well, and when it finds this register, that's when it works best, with just enough heightened reality to reflect Molly and Amy's own desperate sense of being the last ones to know what being a teenager is supposed to be like, with recurring characters constantly seeming to effortlessly teleport ahead of them to their destinations despite all the strenuous effort it took them to get there.

And that's an elegant metaphor for their situation, but Wilde isn't necessarily an elegant director—not yet—though she's one with a commendable attitude, going for it in every possible way she can think of going for it, for good and for ill, and not especially concerned about any distinction I might make between "heightened reality where real emotions can be played out" and "total cartoon," and she has the literal total cartoon—a drug-fueled stop-animation freakout—to prove it.  Pity that it's pretty obviously the film's worst scene, despite a great number of reviewers apparently disagreeing: when Amy and Molly wind up accidentally dosed with a fast-acting hallucinogen (it kind of doesn't matter how or where or when this happens, which is part of the scene's problem), they find themselves temporarily trapped in naked Barbie doll bodies, discussing (of course) body issues, in dialogues and images that track with nothing else in this film whatsoever.  Better Off Dead's Van Halen hamburger had more connection to its story.

Yet this, at least, is contained inside an objectively subjective experience.  Then there are things that contain unnoticed contradictions, like a high school principal (Jason Sudeikis) at an elite high school who still needs to work for Lyft for the extra cash; or a pair of parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) who should either not exist at all in this story, or exist a whole lot more than they do, given the parent-necessary places this story winds up; or the crush who's so unspecial and unglamorized that it's kind of hard to see what Amy finds unapproachable about her, exactly like the corresponding scene in Eighth Grade but without the blatant directorial eye-roll.  These inconsistencies, which only exist for jokes (only some of which play, and Amy's embarrassingly oversupportive parents definitely don't) break the film's focus, just often enough to feel like a problem, but not often enough to feel like "anything goes" was a wholly conscious choice.  Meanwhile, I'm also annoyed by the blaring ignorance of Molly's grandiose intention to "clerk for a federal judge between her junior and senior years of law school," a pronouncement so dumb that, like Pauli said, it isn't even wrong.

It's part and parcel of the nature of the thing, suggesting the four writers agreed on the structure, but not what the vignettes filling up that structure signified to the audience or whether it helped or hindered the whole, sometimes just escaping Molly and Amy's narrative entirely, exactly rarely enough that it seems wholly unmotivated and strange when it does.

But, then, it is, anyway, rare; and letting the film mostly belong to Molly and Amy—which is as much to say it belongs to Feldstein and Dever—was certainly one of the better choices available to Wilde, who gets strong and very clearly thought-through performances from her youngish stars.  Always distinct despite a great rapport and despite characters who have almost the exact same personality and politics, and vary mostly in temperament, it's  basically that Dever and Feldstein always know where the fault lines in their relationship actually are, even if Amy and Molly don't.  (Meanwhile, they manage the remarkable miracle of having Booksmart's rampant discussion of progressive politics in general and gender politics in particular feel less like the filmmakers using them as mouthpieces, and more like the genuine expressiveness of precocious kids who are nerds about equality and respect.)

So Molly and Amy are a whole lot of fun to watch together even when the material driving their story is only modestly funny—never as sloppy and lazy as some comedies, but mostly expecting us to get our laughs out of swear words and the existence of sexuality—but there's a strong argument, anyway, to be made that Booksmart is its best self when it's leaning out of comedy altogether, and into Molly and Amy's overlapping melodramas.  Wilde, anyway, absolutely is: Booksmart is a handsome movie throughout, with a propulsive energy and good timing, and that's all a comedy needs, but it's the melodrama that brings out the stylist in Wilde, from a brilliant moment that puts us in Molly's surprisingly square but sweet romantic fantasies, to Amy's underwater reverie that drops a piece of Malick into this high school sex comedy and makes for a stunningly beautiful two minutes in the process (ending with the one reversal of the film that managed to either surprise me or even slightly break my heart), to the argument that ensues, camera roving while the audio drops into silence, aware that what's said isn't as important as the volume and tone of how it's said, and the buried hateful resentments that have finally blossomed onto our friends' faces as it comes out.

Yeah, sometimes Booksmart is great, even if it's an inconsistent greatness.  It's got really great characters at the heart of it, though.  Everything else about it might have a success rate of a coin flip—and a narrow band of quality, too, no failure being too bad, but few successes being too noteworthy, either—but that central relationship comes up heads every time, and is indeed very much enough to at least mark the film it belongs to as a minor instant classic.

Score: 7/10

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