Thoughts on Booksmart (2019)

Yet another entry in the genre of teenage coming-of-age films, Booksmart (2019), the debut directorial feature from Olivia Wilde, miraculously manages to stake out new ground. It feels fresh and original, mostly because it does well the postmodern trick of mixing and matching old forms.

As I said, it’s a teenage coming-of-age film, but it’s couched in the vibe of a farce while being built by having strung together a high school film, a road trip film, and a couple of stoner films, to boot. If that sounds a bit episodic, perhaps uneven, well—it is. Its various elements often threaten to veer off into the ether, especially the dialogue, which is both incredibly woke and utterly lacking in self-seriousness without mocking the wokeness itself. The film is the definition of “rough around the edges.”

And yet, its centripetal force is held off by the fact that its heart is in the right place, anchored by a climactic one-shot that begins with Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) underwater in a pool and ends with her and bestie Molly (Beanie Feldstein) ugly-arguing in the middle of a house party, with their voices drained from the soundtrack. This shot is, and I can’t stress this enough, perfect, in both design and execution.

The political tone of the dialogue brings up perhaps the film’s biggest flaw: what Richard Brody calls its hermetically utopian political vision. There’s no opposing viewpoint, no bad guy, and even the one guy who’s undeniably a douche (Mason Gooding) escapes castigation. Growing up should also include a reckoning with failure and the inherent limitations of life, as The Edge of Seventeen (2016) has in its car scene. But that energy of frustration here is too quickly redirected toward more fruitful endeavors. In this sense, the only truly significant growth in the film is when, early on, Molly discovers that classmates of every character type got into great colleges without being, like her, an overachieving bookworm.

Like an actual utopian narrative, then, Booksmart functions politically as an ideal extrapolation, an unattainable model of the most painless version. It’s escapism that reminds us of escapism’s intrinsic value.

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