(Olivia Wilde, USA, 2019)


I came upon Booksmart in the context of it being touted as a “Netflix film” (strange new genre designation … ). As this Forbes article depressingly relates, it was released to US cinemas in May 2019 (Will Ferrell & Adam McKay are among its executive producers) but did relatively poorly there – and so, like many smaller-scale movies of comparable quality, it was henceforth condemned to find the majority of its audience (not a small one, potentially) streaming on Netflix or similar services. But it is worth rescuing and highlighting from that particular stream.

Booksmart’s premise is simple: two ultra-brainy and not terribly popular teenagers, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), approach the end of their high school education. Fifteen minutes into the film, and the entire iconography of school corridor lockers, classrooms and lunch spots is over and done with.

On the very eve of Graduation Day (therefore, Big Party night), our heroines are faced with a depressing realisation: in all this time, they’ve never partied, taken drugs or had sex (Amy is gay and Molly is straight) – and those kids who did indulge have landed just as good university or job spots for the coming year.

So, Molly and Amy set their sights on the big, local, blow-out party … except that they don’t know its address (actually divining this data is a major source of ongoing intrigue), and therefore end up in a few other locations beforehand: an unpopulated ship, a ‘murder mystery’ event very slightly reminiscent of Jacques Rivette’s L’amour par terre (1984) …

Along this path, Amy tries to focus on her longing for Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), while Molly sublimates her desire for Nick (Mason Gooding): both seemingly ungraspable targets belonging to hedonistic teen worlds far removed from booksmartness.

The wandering, episodic plot (four-way script credit: “Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins and Susanna Fogel and [co-producer] Katie Silberman”) has a modicum of structure – midpoint miracle, and a very YA-fiction misalignment of Amy and Molly three-quarters in – but it’s mainly just a hook for other stuff: gags, pop culture quotations, grotty sex-talk, inadvertent drug intake, and an almost non-stop stream of movement (follow-shots predominate) married to an ever-changing playlist of beats and grooves.

There’s even a research trip to the library in the dead of night! A dance-romance fantasy plops us in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend territory for a while. And the moment when the girls begin conversing (for the sake of secrecy) in Mandarin (which was, for a moment in 2019, a seeming Netflix obsession) is a standout.

The performance routines (dances, mimes, flailing about) are sometimes pushed a degree or three too far, in a simulacrum of ‘acting improv’ comedy. And you need to be prepared for a clipped editing pace that jump-starts every new vision (such as Ryan on a slo-mo skateboard) with a determinedly illustrative, usually heavily ironic song cue.

But I found Booksmart entirely infectious, in the goofy vein of Laura Terruso’s Good Girls Get High (2018). If not quite in the high class of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997) to which it genuflects (via the presence of Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s Mom), or Amy Heckerling’s masterpiece Clueless (1995), it is nonetheless beautifully acted, brightly staged, and occasionally even touching.

If you revisit it (as I did, four years later), you’ll happily retrieve all the juicy details forgotten in the interim (such as a delirious ‘becoming doll’ animation interlude, the perfect antidote in the midst of saturation Barbie [2023] promotion).

Many have complained that Booksmart devalues learning or intellectualism, merely for the sake of extolling a good time – notwithstanding the handy (hypocritical?) pay-off of a (quote unquote) neo-liberal, Ivy League placement for most of its characters, anyhow (all the Yale-Stanford-Harvard talk can, indeed, get a bit wearing).

However, both in its fun-fun-fun vibe and its cagey “having it all” manoeuvres, Olivia Wilde’s film (an impressive directorial debut – a promise sadly deflated, at least for the time being, by her awful sophomore effort Don’t Worry Darling [2022]) fits perfectly well into the modern teen movie tradition inaugurated by American Graffiti (1973). Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley registers here like in P.T. Anderson’s otherwise disappointing Licorice Pizza (2021), or Modesto in Lucas’ classic, or various suburban environs of Los Angeles in Tyler Taormina’s modestly-scaled but affecting Ham on Rye (2019).

Ultimately, Booksmart is all about that eternal, liminal moment between one phase of life that is fast flying away, and another that is about to begin. But, in-between – you’ll understand this when you see Booksmart – you can still have pancakes.

© Adrian Martin May 2019 / August 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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