The best kind of movies centered around the teen experience function as a type of mirror for the viewer, with the expectation that everyone will see the greatest—or worst—version of their past selves, and feel enriched by a story that semi-accurately reflects their memory of the past. When executed well, this trick awes and inspires: assuming universality via specific experience and having that resonate is a rarity. In Booksmart, director Olivia Wilde swings for the fence, in a directorial debut about the radical notion that teen girls can be nerdy and raunchy at the same time.
Early reviews created high expectations—Booksmart was heralded as a film the likes of Superbad, but with girls—while latter reviews positioned the movie as a potentially canonical film that failed to be representative. This supports the fact that movies starring girls and women are too often expected to be definitive, which sets them up for failure, but it was also hindered by the narrative pushed by its director and stars: that it definitively portrays the struggles of and triumphs of Gen Z girls. Booksmart’s rave reviews belied its box office performance, where it was trounced solidly by other, flashier fare in its opening weekend; that has nothing to do with how good it is, and everything to do with the season. Summer is here, and while it is the time of proms, graduation, and other advancements toward adulthood, moviegoers traditionally prefer to lose themselves in splashy popcorn flicks that provide escapism.
Booksmart instead deals with messy realities. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (the quiet, brilliant Kaitlyn Devers) are best friends who’ve cast themselves as intellectual pariahs in a sea of high school misfits more concerned with partying, drugs, blow jobs, and failing up. Molly, class president, is headed to New Haven (“Call it Yale,” Jason Sudeikis, their exasperated principal by day, Lyft driver by night, tells her), and Amy is off to Columbia by way of a gap year in Botswana making tampons for women who don’t have them. Molly wants to become the youngest Supreme Court justice and has seemingly crafted her life to achieve that goal; Amy’s less clear on where her path will lead, but has been following in Molly’s domineering thrall.
While it’s not clear how long these girls have been friends, what shines on the screen is their chemistry—Feldstein is a remarkable actor who has so far been relegated to the best friend role. If the universe is just, she will have a long, expansive career. Dever is the perfect foil to Feldstein’s manic, Tracy Flick-like energy, which is imbued with some hyper-current updates for 2019 audiences: Amy drives a boxy Volvo station wagon with a Warren 2020 sticker on the bumper, while one of Molly’s neatly-organized clothing drawers contains both “fall clothes” and “protest outfits.” The action begins after Molly’s world is upended; overhearing a conversation in the bathroom between three popular kids about her, she realizes that she has maybe wasted the past four years of her life avoiding fun for the sake of academic and personal achievement. It’s not her appearance that makes her repugnant to her peers, but her attitude. Also, all the hot, dopey, party kids are going to schools just as prestigious as hers, so what gives?
The answer, of course, is to buck a four-year reputation of being a stick in the mud by attending every single party they can find before graduation, in an attempt to cram the four years of fun into one wild night that they will remember forever. It’s safe to say they get their wish, but the urgency with which Molly and, somewhat reluctantly, Amy, pursue this directive feels unearned. Perhaps it is uncouth to yearn for a villain in a movie about self-actualized teen girls who are confident in their intelligence, but some sort of larger conflict other than their own personal disappointment in not allowing themselves the full breadth of the high school experience would’ve raised the stakes in a way that made me care just a teensy bit more. As an adult staring down the barrel of my 20-year high school reunion, the panicked determination Molly embodied as she rose to the challenge of having the best night ever felt silly, though I recognize I’m not the target audience. Giving hand jobs behind the concession stand at the football field probably would’ve made high school a little more interesting, but there is still plenty of time in your 20s, 30s, and beyond to engage in activity of that nature.
I would be remiss to not engage with the movie’s Barbie dream sequence, which occurs after our two intrepid leads eat strawberries dipped in hallucinogens, force fed to them by Gigi (the excellent Billie Lourd), an effervescent Weetzie Bat-adjacent L.A drug sprite who appears if by magic at every party before the girls arrive. Molly and Amy are transformed into plastic dolls and engage in a conversation from roughly 2008 about unrealistic beauty standards. It’s not that this conversation isn’t important; it’s just that in a movie filled with such painstaking attention to detail about contemporary girlhood, this felt out of place and strangely regressive, given the woke posturing of the rest of the characters, including but not limited to a pizza delivery man who lectures the girls on stranger danger and sexual assault. Amy’s queerness was matter of fact and not the center of the film, which felt fresh and was quite sweet—perhaps the strongest part of the film. The argument between Molly and Amy at their long-awaited party stung because the ferocity of their love for each other and the fear for what the future holds was palpable and felt very real: another mirror moment that will surely resonate with anyone who has had a friend.
I spent most of the movie seeking a spark of recognition in the scenes that played out, looking for a sharp edge. Everyone’s mirror moment will be different, but mine came during the brief, fleeting moment at the house party where Molly realizes that she has had a crush on Nick (Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Jr.), the jock-y, Georgetown-bound class vice president. He’s the kind of dopey, sloe-eyed bro who girls like Molly, and unfortunately, myself, liked in high school with the understanding that we were never the option. A vigorous game of beer pong and a truly inspired Harry Potter pickup line is enough to make Molly feel for a few minutes that maybe this idiot will give her a chance. It was disappointing that the moment of recognition came out of the unfortunate human impulse towards desire and not an intellectual awakening as the movie itself has been sold, but watching Feldstein’s face crumple, then realign as she processed the news was briefly gutting—an instance I recognized from my own experience that stung.
It’s not that another movie about teen girls isn’t welcome, though the framing of the public conversation from Wilde herself makes it seem as such. Over the holiday weekend, Wilde tweeted that Booksmart was getting “creamed by the big dogs” and urged people to see the movie in theaters if they were thinking about it at all. “Don’t give studios an excuse not to greenlight movies made by and about women,” she wrote. Stressing how vital a movie like Booksmart is makes sense for Wilde, an adult woman, because adult women are its unintentional target audience—fans of Broad City who will recognize the urgent, unblinking love that underscores Molly and Amy’s friendship and who wish, on some level, that they were brave enough in high school to own the navy-blue boiler suits that the pair selects as their party outfits. It’s this specific group of women who seek these mirror moments because their stories are remarkably absent from film, and even a glimpse of recognition can seem like a wellspring.