Nevertheless, They Persisted: The Radical Kindness of “Booksmart”
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a bath of warm feelings
The good-hearted, often hilarious coming-of-age comedy Booksmart deserves to be to Gen-Z girls what Clueless was and is to millennials. It’s the night before high-school graduation, and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have had a revelation. Since they can remember, they’ve hit the books and steered towards ivy-league colleges, after which, they’re sure, come fabulous, empowering careers. Their ambition has come at the expense of having any stupid kid fun, and the girls learn to their horror that many of their classmates, notorious party animals, are also getting into good schools. So Molly and Amy determine to find the biggest, coolest party and have at least one disreputable night to remember.
Booksmart feels solidly of-the-moment, very “Nevertheless, she persisted.” I don’t know that it would have felt so vital, felt so much like something one reaches towards gratefully, a few years ago (say, four). In the current moment it feels like an oasis and (forgive me) a hug. The movie was written, directed, and (with one exception) produced by women, and it pokes a little gentle fun at the performative wokeness of its era while never denying its necessity. There are holes here and there that I imagine are accounted for by deleted scenes — we meet Amy’s parents but not Molly’s, and one character makes such a belated comeback in the story I had a hard time remembering who she was and why she’s antagonistic to Amy. But mostly the narrative is loose and anecdotal, like so many other fond comedies about what goofy but lovable kids we were. (If “we” were well-to-do California kids, of course.)
The exuberant Feldstein and the wary Dever anchor the comedy in their characters’ respective insecurities, and director Olivia Wilde stacks the supporting cast largely with bright newcomers. One ringer, Billie Lourd, plays the school’s rich wild girl and turns in an eccentric but generous-hearted performance that does her mom, Carrie Fisher, proud. Some of the goings-on reminded me of the affectionately-seen hijinks of the kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. There are (with a brief exception) no villains here, just kids and — occasionally — grown-ups just trying to get by and have fun. Even the apparently mean kids have nooks and crannies of kindness. If they talk trash about you in the restroom it’s just because they don’t really know you.
Wilde is generally in gentle but firm control of the movie’s tone and moods, and when things get dramatic in the third act, we feel the potential loss sharply. It feels a little too much like a screenwriting trope, though, to have Molly and Amy fight and fall away from each other, and we don’t want to see them hurt (and we also know they’ll make up). We develop warm feelings for just about everyone — the rich dork who rents a yacht to throw a competing party; the drifty, smiling girl on whom Amy has a crush, but who might not actually be worthy of it; the teacher (Jessica Williams) who finds herself drawn into the party; and most of all for Molly and Amy. I always wanted more of everyone here; I would sit for a ten-episode Netflix Booksmart prequel series, as long as they could get the whole cast back.
I keep using words like “gentle,” but I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Booksmart isn’t also funny. The scenes are clipped to open up a line or a gag for maximum punch. There’s a bad-sex scene of titanic awkwardness that’s played for uneasy chuckles but mostly for cringing compassion; in general, we don’t have to wonder if it’s cruel to laugh at anything here. Even that well-worn stereotype the flamingly gay black guy is intended to be funny on his own terms. The movie is casual with gayness and is incisive on the inner lives of smart girls. For those reasons it often feels like a waft of cool fresh air piping into the humid, fart-filled elevator we’re all now stuck in. Some of the air is not so fresh; that’s what happens when you have four credited (albeit female) screenwriters. Every so often a line or situation lands with the heavy thunk of predictability or familiarity. But not too often. I’m glad films like Booksmart can still be made. I hope to see many more like it — or, not like it, but in the same spirit, with the same embracing soul. Its kindness makes it seem radical resistance.