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Booksmart Deserved Better

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a success—if you take it on its own terms.

Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

In the opening scene of Booksmart, a winsome comedy about two try-hards who set out to prove they can have fun on the eve of their high school graduation, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) wakes in the flamingo-pink Le Capris apartment complex to a pre-recorded pep talk. “Good morning, winner,” Maya Rudolph’s voice coos. “Visualize the mountain of your success and look down on everyone who has ever doubted you. Fuck those losers. Fuck them in their stupid, fucking faces.”

Feldstein plays Molly with enough ferocious charm that it’s almost easy to overlook the parts of her personality that drove her to pick such an aggressive wake-up call: She’s judgmental, superior, and pushy. The only person she doesn’t look down on, it seems, is her best friend, Amy, played with wry sensitivity by Kaitlyn Dever. Molly and Amy are ride-or-die pals, united in their ambitions to enroll in elite universities in the fall, leaving high school behind for better, more impressive lives.

But when Molly overhears a trio of cool kids making fun of her bald-faced, Tracy Flick-esque zeal in the bathroom, a well-known secret finally gets aired out. Not only did the popular kids spend their weekends partying instead of bent over textbooks, but they got into Ivies, too. As Triple A (Molly Gordon) puts it, “I’m incredible at handjobs, but I also got a 1560 on my SATs.”

Other coming-of-age movies, like the Brat Pack films or Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, might have used this moment to unpack the class dynamics festering under the surface of the conversation. But Booksmart is more interested in upending the logic that has dominated high school since time immemorial: Girls can be smart, but not fun. Girls can be slutty, but not smart. It’s either/or, Molly and Amy have been told. You can’t have both. The problem is, they internalized this lie, while their peers—especially the boys and the rich, white kids—didn’t. The sons and daughters of the wealthy knew the game wouldn’t matter to them. It’s rigged in their favor.

For a neat, smart movie about the intricacies of navigating late adolescence, Booksmart has had to bear an unusual set of burdens. The film’s director, actress Olivia Wilde, set outsized expectations for the film, when she tweeted an imploring message on Memorial Day Weekend: “Anyone out there saving Booksmart for another day, consider making that day TODAY,” Wilde wrote. “We are getting creamed by the big dogs out there and need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women.”

To some, Booksmart’s only-okay performance at the box office in its first week was read as a self-fulfilling prophecy about the fate of all (white) female creative teams in Hollywood (see: a redux of the tiresome 2016 Ghostbusters 3 debate). Instead, as more level-headed minds—like Sam Adams at Slate and Sean Fennessey and Amanda Dobbins at The Ringer—pointed out, the film opened on Memorial Day weekend, slotted against major franchises like John Wick 3 and Aladdin, and beleaguered by poor publicity and distribution plans.

To be sure, the movie also has some easy-to-spot shortcomings, which are, frankly, criticisms most films in Hollywood deserve: Its story revolves around the experience of white women, shunting its characters of color into secondary, albeit charming, roles. Booksmart is also blind to the role that class and privilege play in the experiences and choices of its characters. This becomes an actual storytelling problem if you squint too hard, through the leaning towers of pizza boxes, artful penis bathroom graffiti, and sexual predator gags. There’s also plenty that Booksmart simply isn’t. It’s neither an indie feature helmed by a seasoned director and writer, nor a major studio venture with instantly recognizable (male) talent, like say Judd Apatow at the height of his Superbad days.

Still, Booksmart is a much better movie than critics—The New Yorker’s Richard Brody called it “unpersuasive” and “faux-sweet”—have made it out to be. The film exists in a strange matrix. It’s more John Hughes than Judd Apatow, and it’s a little more Bridesmaids than Lady Bird. As Amy and Molly embark on an epic quest to find the coolest graduation party in town, there are occasional aesthetic nods to the film’s indie roots, notably the lush scene shot in a backyard pool and soundtracked with great yearning to the billowy Perfume Genius song “Slip Away.” As Amy pursues her lust for Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), a giggly, laid-back skater chick with ambiguous sexual preferences, she shimmies out of a borrowed sequined dress and cannonballs into the pool. It’s one of the first scenes where we see Amy experience a sense of freedom and joy, even though the moment is cut short by crushing reality. (Sadly, it seems, Ryan likes boys.)

In its generous treatment of queer female desire, Booksmart is unique for both a teen movie and a party flick. It’s refreshing and relatively unprecedented to watch a queer girl navigate lust without it being the only facet of her character, or the only facet of her character flattened through the lens of heterosexual voyeurism.

Other movies set in high school have clearer lessons: The Breakfast Club kids are forced to reconsider stereotypes and forge alliances to defeat the zealous principal determined to ruin their weekend. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off goes so far as to suggest that the entire system is bogus, so why even bother following the rules to begin with? Booksmart seems to be making a less coherent point about authenticity, that “being yourself” is the way to both social acceptance and inner happiness—even if that means finally admitting you want the hot, “dumb” jock who’s beneath you, or scoring the phone number of the mean girl who puts you down in English class.

Love stories often ask us how we’re willing to change—what we’re willing to give up—to preserve the great love of our lives. But Molly is never really asked to reconsider her aloof, judgmental behavior—she only reneges on her bossy ways because she runs the risk of losing Amy for good. In the end, the smart girls decide that they can have fun, too, an outcome only made possible because there’s suspiciously little gatekeeping standing between Molly, Amy, and the social life they weren’t able to admit that they wanted.

As it turns out, the popular kids secretly wanted them to hang all along; they just needed to be fun and mean it. (Anyone who’s battled their own posse of Mean Girls, or shuddered out of reach of a smarmy Blane knows the story’s never truly that simple.) It’s how the duo can John Wick a borrowed Pontiac with painted flames licking up its sides onto the football field at graduation day to cheers instead of eye rolls. These girls don’t want to destroy the system; they want to be part of it. And it was fun, in that hour and a half, to watch them get there.