Initial reviews of this film called it the female Superbad; but far from Superbad’s deprecating masculinity, the female duo at the heart of Booksmart celebrate both themselves and each other in an exhilarating female-led film that tells more of the reality of teenage life than usual Hollywood offerings.
With the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde and a production team including Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the film follows the journey of best friends Amy and Molly who, after many years of swotting up, decide to let loose the night before graduation. This is the result of Molly discovering that many of her partying peers have also achieved places in high-flying universities: and this is a moment that is strikingly true to reality. The film perpetuates the idea of looking beyond the stereotype, which leads to later heartfelt and interesting moments with the drugged-up Gigi, apparently promiscuous Triple A, and rich boy Jared and gives it an immense heart that other teen comedies usually lack. Molly decides that they have to make up for lost time, and that they’re going to go to a party: cue a ‘party crawl’ not too dissimilar to teen comedy superstar Superbad’s own. Of course, mishaps and chaos ensue.
But for all its chaos, Booksmart doesn’t miss out on emotional cues. There’s a crushing moment when, in the midst of the party, Amy’s dreams of confessing to her crush come crashing down around her, followed immediately by a tough moment with Molly where their friendship seems to shatter. Both of them are left on their own for the first time, and it’s heartbreaking in a film so closely centred around their friendship. At the end of the film, there’s also the moment where, a la Lady Bird, Amy’s character leaves for the airport in a moment that’s surprisingly devastating from a comedy film and one that speaks to anybody who’s had to say goodbye to a friend. The film beautifully balances the highs and the lows.
The acting is wonderful, fully leaning into stereotypes: many of the characters are portrayed in a perfectly teenaged over-the-top manner. The stars of the show are Kaitlyn Dever and Lady Bird alumni Beanie Feldstein (interestingly, she’s Jonah Hill’s younger sister); they lived together for ten weeks prior to shooting, and their friendship shines through. But the supporting cast are just as strong: Billie Lourd is phenomenal, and Skyler Gisondo draws a touchingly nuanced performance as Jared.
One of Booksmart’s biggest assets, though, is its music. Eschewing the tradition of indie teen comedies’ reliance on emotional indie tunes and 80s hits, Booksmart’s soundtrack thrives on the more current teenage soundscape of rap. The contrast of Molly’s feminist mantras with the ballsy “To Whom It May Concern” makes for a brilliant opening. The music also tells us stories of different characters: when Amy sees her crush, we switch from rap to indie pop band Discovery’s “Can You Discover?”, a song that perfectly embodies the desire of a teenage crush; and Miss Fine plays something more old school, with Jurassic 5’s “What’s Golden”.
The music is something that swells the film’s emotional moments to their tender heights: there is a beautiful and queer freedom in the use of Perfume Genius’s “Slip Away” when Amy is diving and discovering some newfound confidence, and LCD Soundsystem’s “oh baby” underscores some of the pain when Molly walks home from the party alone.
Breaking down stereotypes and eyeing instead for authenticity, Booksmart and Superbad perhaps aren’t bad comparisons, however Superbad is twelve years old and male-centred, whereas Booksmart seeks to liberate. The characters are diverse and each have their own story that feels relevant to the world in 2019, and so Booksmart is a fresh, funny, and welcomed voice on the teen comedy scene.
Image: DannyB Photos via Wikipedia Commons