“Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut with a screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, is a teen buddy movie about girls. While women and girls have watched and loved films like “Superbad” and teen movies that focus on male stories, there’s always a moment of dissonance where the women watching must contend with the inevitable moment or five when women are objectified and we either have to get on board with the objectification or ignore it. “Booksmart” did not have that problem, and it was glorious.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are the smart girls who gave up their Friday nights to Ken Burns documentaries and library all-nighters during high school. Instead of partying and making Instagram headlines, they studied, pursuing higher goals than a good time.
Now, at the end of senior year, it seems like it’s all paid off. Molly’s off to Yale University in the fall, while Amy got into Columbia. But Molly is floored when it turns out that all her hard work to secure a bright future was not the only way. All the school fools are heading to top colleges too, or have been recruited straight out of high school for jobs with top tech firms.
All the driven dorkness of our two heroines turns out to have been unnecessary. They realize they could have had more fun and still gone for the top schools. They could have had it all. Molly and Amy see their peers in a new light, and find themselves coming up short. It’s not that they have that many regrets about what they haven’t done; what they regret are the stories they won’t get to tell about the experiences they haven’t had.
The experiences they seek to have are less about having the experience, and more about having a story to tell. Molly and Amy are constructing their own meta-narrative. This idea, of what the experience of life will be about in their lives, as opposed to being open to whatever feeling and understanding the experience will bring, gives the sense that Amy and Molly are already completely formed. When experience is undertaken as part of a meta-narrative, it’s as though the experience is less important for growth than is the ability to have something funny to relate. This is an odd, removed way to undertake life.
With one last night of high school ahead of them before graduation, these “Booksmart” girls decide to get crazy, with big goals. Amy has never kissed a girl, although she’s been out since tenth grade, and Molly has a secret crush. They set their sights on the parents-free drunken pool party where all the cool kids are congregating.
Always the researcher, Molly suggests porn to help Amy figure out what to do if she gets that far. Amy is hesitant, because “all of those women are European sex trafficking victims,” but like the rest of America, she relents, and watches.
They end up at all the parties on offer. First up is empty boat party hosted by a hopelessly materialistic rich kid, followed by a murder mystery party courtesy of the drama club. There’s a beautiful sequence in a spare bedroom at the murder mystery mansion, where an accidental hallucinogenic trip from some laced strawberries makes Amy and Molly visualize themselves as Barbie-style dolls.
Amy poses with her leg over her head and gazes at her flawless, creaseless body in a mirror. “I don’t need to use my brain, I just need to be smooth and flexible,” she says, while Salt ‘n Pepa’s iconic “Push It” plays, “Let me have this body!” Being and appearing as dolls is both exactly what they want and their worst nightmare. Welcome to girlhood in America.
The two are feeling frustrated and partied out before they land at the debauched, typically high school drunken revelry they’re looking for. By the time Amy loses her phone and Molly’s runs out of juice, they’ve cashed in their one last chip, and manage to get a ride from their favorite teacher, Ms. Fine.
Ms. Fine is the kind of teacher all kids want. She’s smart, funny, a bit removed, and gorgeous. In the car she lauds the girls for taking the plunge of adventure, revealing that this is what she hadn’t done and regrets. “I had some really dark moments in my 20’s, some really dark moments,” she says, to overcompensate for not having cut lose before that.
In an interesting side story, Ms. Fine ends up in a one-night dalliance with one her students, Theo (Eduardo Franco), a senior boy who is 20 years old and has a six-figure job with Google waiting for him after graduation.
The sequence is framed as a win for Theo, who has had a crush on Ms. Fine all year, and a moment of weakness for Ms. Fine. But if the sexes were reversed, and it had been Thea and Mr. Fine, one can imagine that the teacher would have been cast as a predator and the student something of a victim. Instead, it’s cute, sort of sweet one-nighter.
What so different from the 1980s and ’90s movies of this genre is that once our loveable overachievers get to the party with their peers, from whom they have felt excluded for all this time, they find an inclusive environment. They are accepted, and received as old friends.
The lesson is that the dorks have self-excluded, and that if they’d only opened up a little, let loose, and been more accepting of their peers, they wouldn’t have felt so left out. This is a whole new message for a teen film. Something like this happened my senior year, and I’ve always marveled at it. Suddenly in senior year it was like we were all invited, our faults forgiven.
Amy and Molly’s crushes don’t pan out, and at the climax, they end up in a fight over their friendship. The fight is captured by multiple cell phone videos, and it’s when they decide to open up that their friendship falls apart. Maybe it needed to be exclusive, maybe there was no room for anyone else, not because the girls were shut out, but because they wanted to shut other people out.
Once they part ways, if only for the night, they are able to find themselves a little more, and figure out who they are without the other. This is when they each truly take risks, without the safety net of their best friendship.
By the time they make it to graduation the next day, they’ve done what they wanted. They changed their stories, and took charge of their own narrative. As class president, Molly gives her graduation speech. “Things are never gonna be the same,” she says, looking out at the class of 2019, feeling like one of them for the first time, “but it was perfect. And I didn’t before, but I see you now… Don’t let college f-ck it up.”
While many projects in recent years have wanted to center women and women’s stories, they’ve done it by remaking men’s stories with women protagonists. From “Ghostbusters” to the all-female installment of the Ocean’s series, “Oceans 8,” to the upcoming Broadway restaging of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the stories have featured women, but have not actually been stories that originated with the reality of women’s experiences.
“Booksmart” is, from the ground up, a story about teen girlhood that will resonate with anyone who had a high school best friend, partner in crime, ride or die. “Booksmart” is ready to take its place in the canon of teen buddy stories.