Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a coming of age film for the ages.
Booksmart – ★★★★★
There is an art to when films are released. The holidays, summer and winter, are for the blockbusters. In the next month or so, cinemas will be taken over by the likes of Godzilla and the X-Men. At the end of the year, it will be Star Wars Episode IX and Frozen 2. Everything else has to slot around these screen-hoggers, including the Oscar fodder which appears in January and February.
It’s April and May where the gems lie. In the last few weeks alone, Madeline’s Madeline, Vox Lux, High Life, and Beats have all given 2019 the kick it needs to make it stand out from the pack.
With Booksmart, the best is yet to come.
Director Olivia Wilde has taken a straight-forward premise – two well-behaved and studious girls realise they’ve missed out on the joys of high school the day before graduation, decide they’re gonna party – and updated the formula.
Comparisons to Superbad aren’t unearned (one of its two leads, Beanie Feldstein, is Jonah Hill’s sister) with its moments of gross-out comedy and drug-induced hysteria. But twelve years on from Superbad, the world looks different, what’s funny has changed, and audiences know there is much to be discovered by telling stories which have long gone ignored.
Namely, that of two girls, one of whom is openly out and pining after Ryan, a cool skateboarder who Feldstein’s Molly says probably likes girls because she wore a polo shirt to prom. Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy says that’s her gender performance, not her sexual orientation.
For those at the right age, this will be the film they think back on in decades to come.
Teenagers are becoming more comfortable in their sexual identities, and they’re more aware of stereotypes which they feel a responsibility to break. Amy and Molly have spent their school years acing tests and hoping to do their feminist icons proud, so when they decide to let loose, it’s still with the purest of hearts and greatest of intentions, making Booksmart a wild and raucous but ultimately sweet ride.
A huge deal was made over Love, Simon’s success, a film which brought LGBTQ narratives to a wide audience when often they are confined to European and arthouse cinemas, and there was a hope that having characters in films who aren’t heterosexual would simply become the norm. That one of Booksmart’s main characters likes girls is never a source of friction: her parents are accepting, and she’s been out for years before the film begins. With any luck, Gen Z will normalise what generations before them have fought for, with their acceptance and understanding of diversity.
All of this goodwill would be for nothing if the film wasn’t any fun. The script – a collaboration between Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman – is sharp and fast, to an extent where audiences at preview screenings are missing jokes because they’re still laughing at the one from one before. When Amy is picked up by police, the response for her “shotgun!” gag was such that people missed the even funnier “just kidding, I don’t have one” follow up.
Read more from FilmSpace: High Life, The Hustle, A Dog’s Journey
Coming of age films tend to resonate with people more than most other genres. The culture around their heyday in the 80s, led by The Breakfast Club, is fierce, and now that they’re being retroactively analysed through a modern lens, it is about time for a new canon. Ally Sheedy’s makeover as the ‘basket case’ Allison is in poor taste, and Judd Nelson’s Bender sexually harasses Molly Ringwald’s Claire, only to later become the attractive bad-boy. They are a product of their time and place, but are no longer fit for purpose.
Booksmart is for everyone – it’s hilarious, sharp, insightful, and Dever and Feldstein are both fantastic, leading a cast which includes Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie, who does her best to steal the show. For those at the right age, this will be the film they think back on in decades to come, for the well-behaved kids who wanted to let their hair down, for the feeling only the end of a school year can bring, for capturing the spirit of youth in 2019 in a way that is free from cynicism. See it, and then see it again.