By: Felix Felicis (Two Beers) –
Grab your fanciest fanny packs and prime those plumber-repairman rompers, y’all, because it’s that time of year again, the ONE LAST WILD AND CRAZY NIGHT BEFORE GRADUATION coming-of-age season is here and it’s queer (representation in cinema is for more than just straight white dudes now!) and its name is Booksmart. This nuanced, ode-to-female-friendship flick is a beautifully crafted example of what happens when you support films written, directed, and led by women aimed at, wait for it, try not to gasp, OTHER WOMEN! A more perfect (contemporary) example of uteruses before duderuses doth not exist(… eth). The market on adolescent angst wasn’t cornered by a Superbad/Hangover, gentlemen, and now we have Booksmart/Bridesmaids to prove it.
Booksmart follows Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) as two overachieving BFF’s who come to realize on the last day of their high school careers that all work and no play totally made getting into Ivy League schools worth all of the… nope, nope it was all bullshit because pretty much everyone in their class was accepted to an Ivy. Like everyone. Rocked to their nerdy (slightly pretentious) cores, Molly alongside a reluctant Amy vow to make their last night in high school one for the record books. Locked on target like matching-jumpsuit-clad-missiles (and heading toward the grad party where both Amy and Molly’s unfulfilled crushes await) the girls only have one problem: they have no idea how to find the undisclosed location. An Odyssean journey ensues as the codependently-dynamic-duo are forced to jump hurdle after hurdle in pursuit of the quintessential high school dream (just don’t ever wake a sleepwalker, results may be… unpredictable in the extreme).
Booksmart happens when capturing-the-ephemeral-poignancy-of-adolescence-on-the-cusp-of-adulthood (Can’t Hardly Wait) meets a raunchy-Superbad-esque-blind-date (especially delightful as Feldstein’s older brother is none other than Superbad’s Jonah Hill) for a series of continually escalating shenanigans and just lets the night (plus an ecstasy-coated hors d’ouevre) take them where it will. My grad night was school-sponsored (and involved being fake-hypnotized by a mediocre, middle-aged illusionist alongside the rest of my graduating class) so don’t talk to me about “missed opportunities” in high school unless yours *also* required such flawless commitment to a bit that it resulted in eight hours of running outside the building screeching “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” anytime someone said the word ‘lizard’ okay? Good talk.
I’m one thousand percent still haunted by the truly heinous blight on the face of feminism that was After (debated-reviewed by yours truly and Hawk Ripjaw) and will be until death’s sweet embrace takes me to an afterlife that I most richly deserve (fingers crossed for bouncy castle filled with puppies and clones of Keanu Reeves telling me that “[I’m] breathtaking”). I’d *probably* settle for a stuffed animal and Keanu Reeves’ body double telling me I look okay when I brush my hair but, hey, dream big, right? Right? I’m gonna go ahead and take the universe’s silence as tacit agreement on the first one.
Fact: Keanu Reeves is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs.
But as deeply shitastrophic as After was, Booksmart is equally as good. At its core, Booksmart is one of the most genuine coming-of-age silverscreen teen films I’ve seen in years (bonus for containing zero point zero examples of iridescent, star-crossed vampire/human emotional torture porn). Beat for beat this film, from smart script to poignant directing to dynamic, multi-faceted leads, illustrates a woefully under-represented demographic in mainstream cinema today: the woman-centric narrative. Without getting on my soapbox, Booksmart doesn’t fail in delivering a real, painfully raw look at the complicated web that encompasses female friendship at the cusp/crossroads of change. Both toxic and co-dependent in turn and to varying degrees, Booksmart doesn’t pull *any* punches when illustrating just how supportive, and, at the same time, restrictive (not to mention damaging) those close relationships can be without healthy boundaries. Booksmart doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, it takes it out for a last meal at Applebees, lets it write a letter home to tell mom “I love you” one last time, then straps it to a SpaceX rocket and OBLITERATES IT IN THE OUTER ATMOSPHERE MERCY IS FOR THE WEAK, ELON.
Starting out life as an Indie film before getting a wide release at the box office, Booksmart was written, edited (for the better: an original plot point had the girls looking for *pinches the bridge of my nose* LAST MINUTE PROM DATES – yawn – before switching things up to focus on an inclusive, queer-leading narrative arc as Amy pursues her unfulfilled crush on another classmate, Ryan (a manic-pixie-deam-girl if ever I’ve seen one), while Molly goes after her own crush, Nick ), directed, and had its lead roles filled by women. One of the best female FUBU’s floating around the cinema-verse, Booksmart proves that it’s worth making movies geared toward, oh, I don’t know, ABOUT FIFTY PERCENT OF THE HUMAN RACE. It’s been a deserted wasteland for so long that you might not have believed that change would ever come, but it has (and it’s refreshing as hell to see, feel, and actually – agonizingly – relate to everything happening onscreen).
Olivia Wilde especially delivered as a director (and creative influence) in Booksmart as well. Wilde managed to include one of the most inventive scenes I’ve laid eyes on this year (delivered in such a radically different medium) that could have had a make-it-or-break-it-effect on the film and it’s this: Wilde had the girls take an acid trip through the wonderful world of claymation and I cannot even describe how stellar/genius/hilarious it actually was because the right words haven’t been invented yet.
Then there comes the wonderful ensemble cast. With the exception of one or two clunkers, this Booksmart cast delivered (from leads down to minor ancillary roles) a fantastically well-rounded and layered cast of characters. Aside from the leads, extra kudos go out to Billie Lourd as ‘Gigi’ (the magical, nonsensical, ever-present, everlasting gobstopper of hilarity who appears, almost literally, out of thin air 10/10 times), Skylar Gisondo (you’d know him most recently as Eric Beemis in the tragically, cancelled-too-soon, Netflix original series, Santa Clarita Diet) as the tragically-yet-genuinely-earnest ‘Jared’, and the comedic, knockout dynamic-duo that partnered up as Amy’s parental unit, Doug (Will Forte) and Charmaine (Lisa Kudrow). The only thing wrong with these characters is that they weren’t onscreen NEARLY ENOUGH. I present to you, Exhibits A – C:
*smacks Hollywood on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper*
There’s a blip of a B-Plot where Amy and Molly run into two of their teachers on the (warped) yellow brick road to this epic party. The first being an off-brand, gender-swapped Ms. Norbury-esque (Tina Fey in Mean Girls) encounter that has the girls escaping a deserted yacht party and calling a rideshare only to have Principle Brown (a criminally misused Jason Sudeikis) show up for what may be the potentially-creepiest-but-actually-swerves-into-just-weirdly-awkward car ride ever. Ironically, the glaringly weird stripper’s lounge of a back seat (and a genuine if earnestly oblivious Principle/Driver) rideshare situation wasn’t the insurmountably huge wall of ice guarded by the realm’s Castle of Misfit Toys (and occasional direwolf) that I couldn’t get over.
No, that honor goes to the (again) gender-swapped, eye-rollingly named “Miss Fine” (Jessica Williams of Hot Tub Time Machine 2 – striking out again with questionable life choices. While Booksmart is infinitely better than HTTM 2, the role itself Williams accepted was nothing short of fucked up). At some point, after being stranded… AGAIN… Amy and Molly make a call and Miss Fine rides to their rescue and delivers them unto the party promised land. After Fairy Godmothering the two out of matching coveralls into chic party wear, Miss Fine doesn’t just drive her chariot off into the metaphorical sunset. No… she drives it, lit on fire and wreathed in flames, off a cliff (giving any integrity her character had a viking funeral for the record books).
Miss Fine actually goes inside a house filled with former/possibly current students to relive her party days/twenties gone by, allowing, in the process, a long-haired recent graduate (who may or may not be of legal consenting age) to hit on and, subsequently, HAVE SEX WITH HER (off-screen but still). This is followed up with Miss Fine showing up the next day at graduation for a (cringe-worthy) good ol’ “hey babe” behind the shoulder tap/mistaken identity gaffe (oh no! Miss Fine mistook a female student for her one-night-stand from the back! LOLZ). Miss Fine then runs into her part-time lover, wishes him well, and nonchalantly strolls off into the unknown with zero consequences for what is, at best, a serious violation of professional ethics (if not the commission of an actual crime).
I curse whomever demeaned this otherwise spectacular film with a bygone genre trope that should’ve been taken (or Taken if one of you guys knows Liam Neeson) out back and Old Yeller‘d long ago. Mainstream broadcasts of this type of abuse involving power, minors (if not minors in this film, certainly others) and/or both normalizes and validates the kind of toxic trope that, absolutely, over time, has real-world consequences as our societal and cultural consciousness evolves by internalizing concepts presented to us through different types of media.
Like how when you watch an interview with the Dalai Lama and think he’s OG one minute for condemning the moral bankruptcy of our nation perpetrated by a baked puffy cheeto/actual human dumpster fire. The human embodiment of karma on this earth just called 45 a dick and I AM LIVING FOR THAT.
Aaaaaand then you see in the SAME interview that the D-Lama reaffirmed a previous mind-bogglingly misogynistic assertion (among other equally terrible ideologies) that if his successor were to be a woman, she’d need to be (10/10) a total smokeshow because who’d want to look at an ugly mug on the path to spiritual enlightenment, amirite?
Not that Booksmart was on the same level of awful, but the insidious bias internalized (on a daily basis) when taking in messages conveyed by people we listen to (and assorted media we’re exposed to) should mean that, in a perfect world, society would hold respected individuals (and the entertainment industry) to a higher standard/ideal. And if we can’t do that, maybe (at the very least) we just don’t double-down on super fucked up sound bites.
In addition to those chips in an otherwise flawless cinematic gem, Booksmart feels paced a tad unevenly (too long on the quest-for-party hijinks and too short on the next-day’s – rushed – graduation wrap-up). Except any scene with Jared and/or Gigi? Keep ’em comin’ all day, every day, thanks.
While the get-out-of-jail free card used to spring one of the girls from a tight spot is one of the most hilarious cinematic callbacks I’ve seen in awhile, the commencement scene feels like somewhat of an afterthought. And, lastly, though Booksmart nails an intelligent deep-dive into the complexities and nuances of female friendship, it also negates the character growth and self-actualization both Amy and Molly were able to achieve over the course of the film with its last scene. That’s just my subjective opinion – others viewed the final frames as a platonic twist to an otherwise traditionally rom-com-esque ending (and that’s no less valid).
Watch it, rent it, own it, Booksmart is a lock for my top ten “Best Of” list this year. A few tweaks and this flick would’ve been flawless (dibs on that for the title of my unofficial auto-biography) but that could be said about anything/anyone. Great things are found in imperfection: Chapter One.
Booksmart (2019) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every (new) navigational fail on the way to the Holy Grail.
Take a Sip: whenever Jared and/or Gigi pops up out of nowhere. Take Two: if it’s legitimately not possible for that to happen after calculating probabilities using all known time/space laws.
Take a Drink: for each Amy/Molly wardrobe change and/or unconditionally supportive hype session.
Do a Shot: whenever one of the girls invokes the Oath of Malala.
Shotgun Your Beer: when Amy and Molly dodge that Stranger Danger bullet in a (get-out-of-jail-graduation-ceremony-card) BIG way.