The Big Screen: Booksmart

(Olivia Wilde, USA, United Artists/Annapurna Pictures, Opening May 24)

High school is different now. There are iPads, and the president of the Gay-Straight Alliance may actually be gay. And in Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde, two overachieving, social-justice-warrior best friends, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are trapped in a brave new adolescent world where the hot, popular people are brilliant, too. So for all their hard work and avoidance of raucous parties and teen sex, Molly and Amy, valedictorian and salutatorian, are only nominally on top.

This scenario is likely only amusing for those of us who went to big public schools with class sizes starting around 30. That was the old world, where the hot, popular people, while not all dumb, were almost certainly not going to Harvard and Yale. Dazed and Confused was not just a fun period movie, but a fairly solid representation of the average high school’s wild, rattling ride. But maybe, if you were one of the overachievers, after you graduated, you went to a fancy college and quickly learned that in the land of elite private schools, the films of Richard Linklater are mere curiosities. At those schools, the popular people were in fact both intellectually and genetically “gifted” (or stupid-rich enough to be neither). They were the college students most poised to graduate straight into the halls of power. Not you.

Anyway, Booksmart is not about this intriguing, disturbing divide. The school Molly and Amy attend is portrayed as a regular old public school, what with the lockers and traditional desks and student council and calling the teacher “Miss” and skateboarding in the halls on the last day—except that everyone, from the chosen ones to the weirdos, is going to a U.S. News & World Report top 10 college and dresses hip. They’re also all very nice, except the easygoing hot girl who excels at fellatio and is going to Yale. It takes several scenes for her to be very nice. Oh, and the low-key lesbian model who (spoiler) negs her way straight into Amy’s heart takes a minute for her great personality to shine through.

If you are, or were, a regular-ass person who had to carry a sagging Jansport onto the bus and through security, it’s hard not to feel bitter about the premise of this film, in which the overachievers go on a wild night out to make the most of the decked-out mansions of their friendly schoolmates before it’s too late. So you feel a kind of relief when the camera reveals the bright pink apartment complex where Molly lives, or lingers on Amy’s overthinking blunders. But alas, Booksmart is a broad-comedy Lady Bird without the class politics, sharp social observations, or bubbling fury. Feldstein also appeared in that film, co-starring as the titular character’s best friend who also lived in a modest California apartment, again the daughter of absent parents. But in that film, her joys and pains had something to do with where she came from. In Booksmart, Molly’s background is just filler, and Amy’s lesbian identity is just an atypical (in Hollywood, anyway) narrative arc.

The argument in favor of Booksmart is that it is, at its core, a comedy about two female best friends who are not defined only by their class and sexual identities. Molly and Amy just happen to be working class and gay, respectively; what matters most is that they develop into well-rounded young adults who have aced their SATs and proven to their classmates that they’re cool. This, after all, is the new holy grail of female identity. In the age of Sheryl Sandberg (whose audiobook makes a cameo in the film), the hottest thing to be is popular and smart. Lean right in, baby. You can have both. It’s okay if you’re gay or not built like the models lining the hallways or don’t have any sexual experience aside from years of tormented masturbation—but at some point you’ll need to show people that all your time in the library with your best friend did not leave you socially inept. You, too, can banter with jocks.

Forgive me if I’m bored by this. Yes, hot people can deservedly be admitted to Yale. Nerds can win beer pong and French-kiss with the appropriate amount of tongue. White women can broker a deal to get released from jail early so that they can still graduate in time for their gap year in Botswana. Wait… Politics somewhat aside (hey, the movie did it first), the comedy teens need today certainly isn’t a fairy tale about a good-natured struggle to the top.


Cassie da Costa is a writer who works at Medium.