Almost A Classic: Booksmart

booksmart indexIf you are currently parenting adolescents, it’s the kind of film you might want to watch in bite-sized (10-15 minutes) pieces.

(In the process of writing my review I realised that I may have gone over to spoiler territory. So rather than debate whether what I shared constitutes a spoiler or not…I’d rather recommend you not continue reading unless you’ve decided that you’re ‘spoiler immune’ or feel that sort of revelation is essential for you to decide if the film is for you).

The most important thing you’re going to have to remember when assuming a parent role (whether as a sibling, auntie, grandparent, adopting a child, or giving birth to one) is that there would come a time when the kid would be embarrassed by your actions (or maybe some days, even your existence). It doesn’t matter how much of a natural progressive you are (or even if you put in a heap of hours to make yourself as ‘woke’ as possible), its an eventual thing that happens between kids and those who are tasked with their safety and well-being.

The Setup: Seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are one night away from their High School graduation. Linda Holmes, the host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, couldn’t help but categorise our protagonist. She eventually decides that Molly is closest to Tracy Flick, the antagonist of ‘Election’. While I still couldn’t believe (after watching it) that this was something from one of my favourite directors (as it seemed so removed from ‘The Descendants’ or ‘Nebraska’), I get where Linda was coming from. Molly prides herself on what she has achieved and doesn’t mind that she doesn’t get approval from her peers. While she could probably have been able to do the whole thing (High School…and life) by herself, she has received a little blessing by the form of best friend Amy.

The Inciting Incident: Molly finds out that her classmates who have been spending time on schoolwork compared to her have achieved close to what she had: get into a good school. One less confrontational reaction to that would have been to ask how they managed to do it, rather than demean the perpetrators. Of course there isn’t the assurance that they would react in a respectful way, but at least you’re not contributing to the cycle of hate (as Starr Carter learned in ‘The Hate U Give’). I’m tempted to assume that this is what Molly deals with everyday. What makes that particular instance different is her response: Beanie plays it like if this were any other day Molly would have just gone to the sink, washed her hands, and left. Not because she hated confrontation, but because she doesn’t think expending the energy is worth it. Given the three other people she was faced with in the restroom (which from the looks of things – not limited to a specific gender), it’s really only Annabel (Molly Gordon) who has defied Molly’s expectations. This maybe highlights that Molly has issues about fairness she still has to sort out within herself. Tanner (Nico Hiraga), getting into Stanford as an athlete, and Theo (Eduardo Franco), being able to code well enough to get the attention of Google, not putting significant time in schoolwork but still getting lucky breaks (again, perspective dependent) makes sense.

The Stakes: Molly fearing that she is missing out. When Amy reminds her friend that they were planning to watch a Ken Burns documentary (I myself am not a big fan of them – but I would definitely vote for this compared to letting two 18-year-olds lose without adequate supervision), it cements the idea that like the rest of the human race, this teen is feeling the pain of thinking that she had missed out. This is why the media usually portrays certain men going through mid-life crisis (Web MD prefers to call it ‘midlife transition‘) and forget that it’s something that everyone goes through when they get nearer towards being ‘seniors’ (you know…when you get a discount card because you’re now classed as ‘elderly’?). I thought it was odd that reviews from big publishing outlets miss out on how easily we are swayed when we start comparing ourselves to others.

It’s a fact of life that sometimes one has to work twice (or even at times…thrice) as hard as their peers to be able to be seen as an equal. Ruth Bader Ginsburg shares this in Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s 2018 documentary ‘RBG’, noting that all her female classmates at Harvard law school were asked to give a reason why they deserved to take the place of a man. However it is Daniel Stiepleman who gives us how the scene looked like in his screenplay for ‘On the Basis of Sex’. I know that was an extreme case in which it was about sexism. What the film glosses over is the importance of us accepting that we should focus on the task ahead of us rather than how well (or worse) certain peers are performing. What I notice from immature people (be they still be going through adolescence or struggle to get out of it even when they’re about to turn 50) is they share a commonality: when faced with a behaviour they need to work on, they respond by focusing on comparing themselves with others rather than taking the time to find the steps they need to get from where they are (affected by how others have it easy) to where they would like to be (everyone has their own battle to fight…and by focusing on yours it would be easier to know which cause to invest your mental energy in). Ruth, of course, made it her life’s work in making sure that the law treats people equally regardless of gender. If she responded the way Molly did, will we have the same respect for her?

There’s also Pat the Pizza Guy (Mike O’Brien – who I refer to as ‘LIDO Pizza Guy‘) who seems to have come from a thriller (or maybe a film that has a similar tone as Act 2 of ‘Room‘). It’s like his scenes with Amy and Molly are like a crossover (is it the same term in film as TV shows?), it’s like those two films overlapped and somehow we can look up his story. That’s how layered he was. Given the revelation about him during Act 3, I still find myself wondering about that non-existent film and hoping that it was more of a mistaken identity. But if he turns out to be Saul Goodman (I know the jury’s still out for that), wouldn’t there be sort of a redemption? I guess these are the questions I find myself left with and are reminded that it’s all thanks to director Olivia Wilde. She is probably the biggest surprise in the whole thing. Not because I couldn’t envision her as a director. It’s more of the surprise that she shares a bit (maybe more) of my sense of humour. The film that I probably link to her would be ‘The Longest Week’, which humour barely appealed to me (I did manage to make it until the end).

The reason that I was so dismayed when I found out the story didn’t have well-written adults in it was because I had just recently finished watching Lang Fisher and Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’. Though that show has a younger protagonist at it centre, it manages to have adults (like Niecy Nash playing Devi’s psychiatrist) who are making an effort to help the high school student arrive at adulthood with the least dings and scratches as they could. There’s also Woody Harrelson who plays one of the most memorable teachers to date (Mr. Bruner’s reaction to Nadine’s angsty ennui is the main reason I decided to keep watching ‘The Edge of Seventeen‘). Given that it was only released three years before ‘Booksmart’, I would have hoped that Olivia Wilde had integrated it as an essential when putting together her feature film directorial debut.

My favourite moment might be when the pizza guy freaks out when he accidentally notices Molly typing in the PIN code for her phone right before taking a photo of the address where the party is (But couldn’t you take a photo without unlocking your phone? Or was that a nod towards Molly wanting to make sure the photo of the address isn’t blurred?). Would adolescents watch that scene and consider some of their unsafe actions? Well, parents the world over have their fingers crossed! There’s also the hope that their Molly has an Amy around to be the voice of reason. Something (like knowing that admitting to having a weapon when threatening another person is a felony) is better than nothing, right?

Comedic Moments:

  • The interior design of Principal Brown’s vehicle
  • Amy and Molly’s carpool ‘dance greeting’
  • When asking for directions it helps to confirm that you are given the right destination
  • Amy interested in playing the farmer in the murder-mystery
  • Need information? The mayor is who you should look for
  • Need to conceal your identity? You can use your….hair?
  • If you get to be a favourite teacher, that’s a label for life. Good luck with having enough patience as your former students continually try to find ways to impress you.
  • Gigi seems to have mastered the art of teleportation (or ‘slight of hand’ – potato / Po-TAH-to)
  • Part 1 of the end credits (water-balloons versus faces)

Kaitlyn Dever has proved herself to be a quite capable actor sharing scenes with the greats like Brie Larson (‘Short Term 12‘) and Keira Knightley (‘Laggies‘). Unlike others in the industry who only could do drama or comedy, she doesn’t have an issue doing one or the other. While she is the antagonist, each scene is elevated with her in it. Much like Oliver Platt in Chicago Med, she challenges her scene partners to perform at least an 11/10. During an episode of IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Olivia mentioned that they crafted 90% of the film through casting. Not just bringing in the right people to embody the roles, but also rewriting to make the character even more specific. I agree with her that comedies that miss being the best version they could be go for a broad approach. If the story were less developed, we’ll have ended up with a frustrating protagonist and antagonist. People with immense intelligence like Amy and Molly who also like to geek out would have come off as extremely boring. I liked how at one point the friends ended up in the wrong house and was offered to join in the murder-mystery being enacted, it was quite amusing that Amy was very interested to play one of the extra characters after hearing her backstory.

Probably the most difficult thing to watch was Amy telling Molly that she would like to go home, and Molly isn’t hearing her friend because she’s too delighted with the possibility that the night has more for her. When a person is blinded by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) it’s likely that they miss out on JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out), because if you say yes to something, you’ll have to give up other things. Turns out that Miss Fine (Jessica Williams) is written with depth because she is also still experiencing adolescence. I was a bit dubious about her congratulating the friends that they are doing the right thing by going to a party then going on a tirade about a smoothie place that she’s been banned from. Is that another lesson? Should Amy have just pulled the plug rather than buckle under pressure?

What I would have wanted was making the adults more than caricatures. Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) is shown to be someone both Amy and Molly aren’t cool with when they find out that he is a ride share driver. Charmaine (Lisa Kudrow) and Doug (an almost unrecognisable Will Forte) still embarrass their daughter even if they are quite liberal. Probably the only adult that had been written with an inner life seems to be Miss Fine, who also seems to be the only one that the two aren’t repulsed into turning into. I understand that may be intentional as adolescents usually (it seems to be a natural thing when they go through puberty) would not want to be their parents. Maybe eventually they find out that the values their parents have tried to leave them with are the ones that would like to embrace when they turn 35, but it’s rare that you get an enlightened 18-year-old.

Though it wasn’t tackled with a lot of screen time, when Amy notes that pornographic imagery has connections to human trafficking it confirms that a lot of people still have Molly’s point of view. The first of Liam Neeson’s ‘Taken’ trilogy was successful in showing the tip of the iceberg, and I could understand how certain travellers have curtailed their plans (or at least been more cautious) because it is a modern day horror film. It’s probably one of the biggest issues that could affect anyone (either directly or indirectly), and awareness is a small step towards eradicating it. The reason I wished that it was tackled more (or at least Amy mentioning to Molly that they are part of a vulnerable group) as food courts are known hunting grounds of traffickers (they target kids who are unhappy with their home life or eavesdrop until they get enough information to get the upper hand) which could make either them or schoolmates as targets.

I did not have much hope for ‘Booksmart’, not because it was about adolescents, but due to the script. Thankfully it went through the necessary development it needed to give those strong opening minutes (signalling that we are in for a silly but fun story). If you usually think of dad-jokes linked when people just shake their heads in embarrassment as the ‘supposedly side-splitting’ punchline is delivered, then look at it in reverse: when adults look at young people when they get silly. By the end of the film you’ll probably have a similar reaction to me and wonder: What did I just watch!? – In the middle of laughing and chuckling while your brain replays the film’s best moments. Of course, the whole ‘irresponsible’ section is something entirely different, but if you are looking to be more emphatic about what is needed to arrive at adulthood unscathed, these two studious friends are probably ones you’d want your own 14-year-old to watch (with you providing adequate supervision and commentary of course!).

Leigh Lim.
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