This won’t be a typical review because, right out the gate Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) is not your typical teen comedy. So to start, here’s a link to the Booksmart soundtrack to listen to while you read this. Want the quick and dirty? This movie is fantastic. Go see it. Bring your friends. Those of you sticking around are going to get the treat of a one on one cage match between Booksmart and its spiritual predecessor, Superbad (2007).
Aside from the fact that both are telling a high school graduation story of two close friends about to separate for their college years, there’s an undercurrent of how poorly Superbad has aged since its release, which I’ll touch on only to mention that not too long ago Emma Stone went on record saying that many of the jokes she herself came up with ended up being passed along for her male costars. So, how does Booksmart square up in a genre largely dominated by adolescent dudes “trying to get laid” stories?
I mentioned already that it’s a story we’ve seen before, not just with Superbad, but off the top of my head, Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Dazed & Confused all come quickly to mind of having the same narrative framing. If you can’t be original, then at least do it well and in this regard Booksmart triumphs. The story never loses sight of the bigger driver and countdown to Amy (Kaitlyn Denver) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) graduating even as their immediate concerns shift over the course of the movie (from closing off business at school, to finding “the big party” to making that party special).
The story doesn’t just amble or trudge along these beats either, it should be noted that every one of those phases and shifts is accomplished through grounded drive from our main characters and their motivations and fears alike.
Point Booksmart, 1-0
Cast & Characters
Speaking of the characters, Denver is the true standout in my opinion. She gives Amy the perfect balance of sense of self, while not losing hold of the character’s insecurities and anxieties. Even as a cisgendered male, I found her highly accessible and relatable which is no small achievement. Denver may just be the “star to watch” from this, which is really saying something because everyone shines here. Feldstein’s Molly also pulls off a flipside balance of intensity and anxiety, but holy cow the pair are absolutely surrounded by a wealth of marvelous characters.
More than any other film yet in the genre, the entire cast is full of characters not caricatures. So often in these films the nerd is just a nerd, the goth just a goth. Booksmart states this thesis right in the first act, when Molly has an encounter with Triple A (Molly Gordon) in the school bathroom: “You don’t care about school!” “No, I just don’t only care about school.” These are full characters with layers and nuance, which is impressive considering just how robust the cast is.
There’s one other film I think that achieved this level of enlightenment, but even then only in its final act as part of its climax: Mean Girls. Molly’s speech at graduation reflects this moral lesson: that we are all full beings whose stories are worth hearing, and that is wholly representative of the value a movie like this has in focusing on a pair of young women as well as for other diverse stories to be told that people can relate to and enjoy.
Point Booksmart, 2-0
Writing & Humor
This one is tough: Booksmart absolutely tells a spectacular story, and there are some superb moments of humor in it. The film takes some incredible chances in style (the barbie doll scene is a trip, literally), Denver and Feldstein are both astonishingly good at physical humor moments in the film, and everyone manages to commit to delivering on some big laughs without sacrificing believability to drag us into the realm of true absurdism (the two parties Amy and Molly visit before “the big one” are prime examples of this, and Gigi throughout).
(Here comes my first ‘but’ of the review:) But I feel like the dialogue could have used some punching up. The humor is in moments and occurrences, but I didn’t leave with a sense of there being too many memorable lines in themselves. There were plenty of laugh out loud moments- (e.g. Gigi’s swan dive, the car speaker audio, saying goodbye to the stuffed panda, Amy and Molly’s compliment ritual) but I can’t remember any “zingers” I want to quote, even if that is a small whiff in the grand scheme. Still, I have to admit that even 12 years later I still quote Superbad‘s cargo shorts line anytime someone mentions that particular apparel.
It’s close, but-
Point Superbad, 2-1
Listen, I could end the review here, declare Booksmart the 2-1 winner, but I won’t. Why? Because it absolutely achieves something I can’t quantify in any particular aspect of its construct that transcends the sum of its parts: this is a film with heart. It’s patient, it cares for and respects all of the characters and their stories, from the high school graduates to the adults doing their respective “best.” (Shout out to Jason Sudeikis talking about the novel he’s working on, that one cut me deep and I respect it.)
Superbad had a cute little culmination with its “boop” moment that I gave a semi-facetious “aww” to. Booksmart was downright touching, it got me choked up seeing the girls say their farewells at the end. It came full circle on every avenue in such a beautiful way that reflected its message while not cheapening any of its characters- main or supporting- with saccharine.
We need more stories like this. We need more people telling stories from places of hope, respect, and empathy. Olivia Wilde, you achieved something everyone should aspire to, and few manage.