US (2019) Dir. Olivia Wilde
Since Bridesmaids proved women could do vulgar, gross-out comedies like the men, the trend continues in allowing girls to behave badly on the big screen. The latest entry in this equality cinema oeuvre, directed by actress Olivia Wilde, takes on the perennial trope of the nerdy unpopular teen high school virgin.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends at a crossroads in their lives having reached graduation from high school, with Molly going to college and Amy working abroad. Largely unpopular for their assiduous dedication to studies instead of having fun, Molly is distraught to overhear classmates badmouthing her, learning that they have also will go to top universities despite their laziness in the classroom.
Galvanised by this, Molly insists that they should finally have some fun and she and Amy will attend the party of Nick (Mason Gooding), who Molly has a crush on, which all the cool kids are attending. But there is one tiny detail – they don’t have the address of the party so they decide to use their smarts to find a way there, setting off a chain of events that will make this a night they will remember.
I must confess hated Bridesmaids, which I found shallow, unfunny, and vulgar for the sake of it – like many male led films in this genre. Booksmart was said to be a clever take on this gender reversal hence me watching it. Perhaps being written by women and directed by one might imply a possible overt feminist bent to the story, or at least something that won’t pander to the male gaze; in the case of the latter, this is exactly what the film offers, the former not so much as far as I could discern.
That isn’t to say the women aren’t strong characters, they have more agency then any of the men, and neither gender is objectified in this age of equality and inclusion. This is delineated with sledgehammer-like subtlety with two extrovertly gay male students at the forefront of the class, as well as Amy being gay too – she has a crush on female punk Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) – yet nobody cares, a huge step forward for this normally sexist genre.
However, the rest of the cast are classic tropes – the slutty girl, the hippy girl, the rich kid, the wild child, the Asian guy, the jock, and a Hispanic chap with long silky hair that Crystal Gayle would envy, all of whom made me wonder if this was a parody. Or maybe they are an accurate representative of US high schools, along with every other movie cliché that paints them as foul mouthed, debauched, self-centred, obnoxious twerps.
For some reason Hollywood seems to think these qualities equate to being “whip smart” and “charismatic” – maybe me being British and an old git to boot is why I have never made the same connection. As lazy as this sounds, Booksmart is a loose female rendition of Superbad or Dude! Where’s My Car?, the usual litany of squirm inducing, predictable comedy of errors, sadly with little comedy, from familiar faces arriving as uber drivers to literal toilet humour with a central message left way too late to reveal itself.
Because inclusion is a key factor, most of the usual demeaning rhetoric beholden to this style of decadent comedy is absent, save for one girl being slut-shamed, making the writes to work harder to find something else to garner sympathy for our protagonists – in this case, being dedicated students. Whilst not nerdy in the sense of having bottle-lense glasses or bad haircuts, their party attire which resemble overalls, is hardly fetching.
Over the course of the evening, they hop from venue to venue in search of Nick’s party, encountering other outlier classmates, including whacky pothead Gigi (Billie Lourd) who seems to show up wherever the girls go. There are a couple of amusing moments, such as watching porn in the teacher’s car and using their hair as masks when attempting to hijack a pizza delivery driver, but that is it.
What I did like was how the dynamic of the two leads was reversed – as a slightly chubby girl Molly is the forceful go-getter of the duo whilst the slender Amy is the level headed one, where usually it would be the other way round. I did enjoy their chemistry and could believe they were best friends as they both off each other very well, leaving now room for any sense of superiority from one over the other.
Amy and Molly also weren’t helpless in the sense of needing a man to bail them out of a situation – aside from not having a car – as their own wits were sufficient. There is also a clever scene where the effects of drug-laced strawberries kick in and the girls trip out, seeing themselves as plastic Barbie dolls, allowing for some commentary on female appearances to sneak into the narrative.
Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein worked well together as Amy and Molly, the latter the more memorable of two, though everyone in the film was upstaged by Billie Lourd, the late, great Carrie Fisher’s daughter. For Olivia Wilde in her first time as director, it was competent enough but very by the numbers, not offering anything new to a genre that really doesn’t give her the chance to.
It may have been well intended in giving the girls a shot at this type of storyline, but the substance just wasn’t there for me which I was looking for the most. For every step forward it took in positive portrayals of modern society, although maybe a tad overboard with the festive gay stereotype, it took three steps back with predictable storytelling.
Not entirely unwatchable, Booksmart is more enjoyable than Bridesmaids, always a plus, a film on the cusp of something of better had it defied some of the genre conventions a little more boldly.