It seems there has long been a need for graciously uncool female protagonists in the teen coming-of-age canon, those who remind us of ourselves a little more than the 90s girls from the likes of Empire Records or The Craft that we wished we could be.
More recently, Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird was heralded as a perfect tale of adolescent angst, but it still gave us a protagonist with a sense of coolness firmly intact. With pink hair and an adequately blasé attitude to school, Ladybird could be added to the pile of teen misfits who were aspirationally uninspired. In fact, it was Ladybird’s sidelined pal played by Beanie Feldstein in Gerwig’s film who was more of the designated “loser”, now championed as such in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart.
Feldstein is class president Molly who, along with best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), is exactly as the film’s title would suggest and the pair realise as their graduation looms that their unwavering dedication to the curriculum for the sake of college applications was perhaps not as necessary as they once thought. As fellow classmates reveal their own Yale and Harvard acceptances whilst chugging beer and trashing the school, the girls set out to have one night living the party life they spent so long rejecting.
The focus on these characters and the cast of fresh faces around them means there is a lot to like about Booksmart, but it equally feels a little worn in places. With Adam McKay and Will Ferrell behind the project as executive producers, the comedic beats are all too familiar, and it makes heavy-handed use of the hip-hop/EDM-blend needle drops that seem to now be a staple of the American teen comedy. It’s also a very internet-literate film, not only peppered with references to memes and Lyft ratings but explicitly conscious of how young digital native adults now discuss issues of sexuality and gender identity. It’s undeniably important that these topics make their way into popular cinema, but the cynic in me is concerned by how this can soon stray into virtue-signalling for marketing potential.
Still it is refreshing to hear girls talking openly about their feelings and their relationship with sex in particular, whether it’s Molly and Amy discussing their masturbation habits or the classmate known as Triple-A (for offering the boys in their year “roadside assistance”) expressing her disappointment with the girls around her for encouraging that nickname. It’s also comforting to see Wilde’s approach to the characters as a collective, a group of equals, as even with faint remnants of the typical high school cliques apparent there are no real barriers to prevent anyone being friends with anyone else. Molly is not heralded as a flawless heroine here – she can be rude and judgmental, and she’s misunderstood her own peers as much as they’ve misunderstood her. The real tragedy is not that she’s missed out on parties, drugs, and sex throughout her time at school, but that she could have been genuine friends with the people around her.
What remains strong and fulfilled throughout, however, is Molly and Amy’s companionship. Feldstein and Dever have an honest chemistry and charm that keeps the narrative focused and cherishable. Wilde deftly captures the softer moments of the film, the quiet devastation of watching the person you want kissing someone else or the unenviable blend of pride and heartache at the sight of your best friend leaving to travel the world. Booksmart has its undeniably crowd-pleasing moments, but it doesn’t stray as far from the status quo of the genre as it possibly could have.