Meritocracy rules in ‘Booksmart’

By Anwen Crawford
Those who work hard learn to play hard in Olivia Wilde’s high-school comedy

Booksmart. © 2019 Annapurna Pictures

“You’ve worked harder than everyone, and that is why you’re a champion,” intones the motivational recording that greets Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on her last day of high school. She’s class president and valedictorian, and keeps a picture of Michelle Obama pinned to her bedroom wall. Molly’s best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), drives a car with an ELIZABETH WARREN 2020 bumper sticker, and plans to spend her summer in Botswana “helping women make their own tampons”. But these two teacher’s pets have a problem: their efforts haven’t been properly rewarded. Oh sure, they’re both set to attend Ivy League universities, but so are some of their less conscientious peers. C’est horrible! In which case, the A-graders might as well join in with the A-listers and enjoy themselves, before it’s too late. “We are gonna change our stories forever,” vows Molly, as the girls make a pact to let loose, just this once.

Booksmart is pretty funny. It gets something right about a certain self-dramatising atmosphere that can exist between teenage girls, like the way they’ll greet each other after half an hour’s separation as if they’re polar explorers reuniting in the middle of a blizzard. Or the way that every conversation happens at a pitch of OMG TOP SECRET EMERGENCY I DIED. The two lead actors have real chemistry, enough to make you believe that they kept up their banter when the cameras had stopped filming. Feldstein, who is 26, is carving out a niche for herself as a one-woman tribute act to adolescence; she was BFF to Saoirse Ronan’s title character in Greta Gerwig’s brilliantly directed teen dramedy Lady Bird (2017), and here she plays the wily yet ebullient guide to Dever’s less demonstrative character. It’s Molly who’s determined to make sure that she and Amy are seen at the coolest of their classmates’ graduation parties, and it’s her role as the decision-maker in the friendship that will lead to the film’s sharpest moment of conflict.

But unlike Lady Bird – or last year’s equally poignant Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham – Booksmart has little time for the real and often lasting wounds of youth. The prevailing mood is cartoonish; literally so during one interlude where Molly and Amy, under the influence, morph into figurines. Debut feature director Olivia Wilde works hard in the service of her hard-working characters, stuffing the film with colourful close-ups, wacky bit parts and funny business that is made to be memed. There are a handful of memorable supporting performances, including Skyler Gisondo as poor-little-rich-boy Jared, and Noah Galvin as George, who is, in Galvin’s own words “every theatre kid you hated at high school”. Never mind that the film is nothing like high school, really, and that Wilde manoeuvres around the in-built monotony of a school day by setting most of the film at night: getting ready for the party, trying to get to the party, hanging out at the party, etcetera. (The party itself takes place in one of those gleaming suburban mansions that only seem to exist in American films, or maybe I just keep the wrong company.) If you can deal with its unflagging zest – for some I suspect it will grate like nails down a blackboard in the classroom of their nightmares – then you may enjoy watching Booksmart. I did.

Yet something niggles at me. I keep thinking back to Booksmart’s opening scene: Molly in her bedroom, surrounded by her gallery of liberal American feminist icons, listening to her affirmations. “Stand atop the mountain of your success, and look down upon everyone who’s ever doubted you,” says the voice. “Fuck those losers.” Hah hah!! YASSSS QUEEEN!! [Prayer hands emoji x 3.] The joke is about profanity expressed in the desire to screw other people over; it’s not about the morality of screwing people over. I am reminded of Election (1999), a high-school comedy that mocked the values that Booksmart, for all its girl-centric appeal, does nothing to challenge. In Booksmart, meritocracy rules: the swots win, the smart-but-naughty kids win; everybody wins so long as they’re a winner. In Election, meritocracy was the myth that veiled – and only just – the ruthless operation of power. Who can forget Reese Witherspoon, her china-blue eyes bright with fury, as Tracy Flick, aspiring school council president and Sheryl Sandburg-in-waiting?

Maybe I just prefer antiheroines to heroines. I wanted some shadows at the edges of Booksmart; a sense that girls going on young women might be sometimes a mess, or sometimes cruel to each other, or sometimes not nearly so intelligent as their test scores might have led them to believe. In other words, I wanted Molly and Amy to be more like human beings, and less like avatars of a tirelessly cock-a-hoop brand of empowerment. Then again, I’m well past the target age for this film, and feminist history is, among other things, a history of women talking past each other: the younger ones surging on their fresh and righteous energy, the older grizzling about how the new wave has got it all wrong.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Booksmart. © 2019 Annapurna Pictures

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