It is almost impossible to say something new in the genre of coming-of-age films. They always inevitably need to tick all of the usual boxes: the protagonist needs to break the ice with their crush; come to terms with leaving home and parents; parting ways with the high school friends; facing the second thoughts concerning the university choices – all of these set pieces are deeply ingrained in the conventions of such films. Yet, part of the charm of high school movies is precisely how they always reproduce similar feelings of anticipation and anxiety.
The narratives of films like Superbad or Project X focused on the single days which were meant to be the defining moments of the male characters’ social lives in high school. The gross-out comedy in these flicks came from the awkwardness of the nerdy boys wanting to conform to the alpha male role models. The characters were funny because they wanted to be (and act) masculine, but never really succeeded at it. Just like Lady Bird a year ago, Booksmart adds a fresh and feminine twist to the genre. Olivia Wilde’s film focuses on the perspectives of Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, tellingly, Jonah Hill’s younger sister) during their last day in high school.
Molly is a school president and a valedictorian – in the first scene, we see her sitting in her room, watching a motivational video which finishes with the words: “You’re ready to dominate”. When the camera pans around the room one notices how the walls are adorned with pictures of Michelle Obama and RBG. When Amy drives to pick up her friend for school, they spend a couple of minutes complementing each other and telling themselves how they missed each other since yesterday. It’s sisterhood personified, but are they, as the principal (Jason Sudeikis) tells them, “too cool to leave school”?
The most powerful thing about Booksmart’s script is how it manages to construct a vibrant and diverse high school microcosm. The rivalry between the protagonists and the rest of the class is established within the first minutes of the film. During an awkward confrontation in the toilet, Molly tells her classmates that they mock her because she’s a nerd now, adding that she will be getting the last laugh once she graduates from Yale. When she learns from one of the girls that they will actually go to Yale together, things start to crumble for Molly: “But you guys don’t care about school!”, to which she hears a defeating: “No, we don’t only care about school”.
What follows is a Hangoveresque narrative about the two girls trying to catch up on the time ‘wasted’ studying rather than socialising. Most of these gags are brilliant due to the secondary characters and their performances. But additionally, the Dever-Feldstein duo has great chemistry which dictates the tone of the film. This is all also due to Wilde’s good sense of pace, amplified by the energetic soundtrack.
The director’s vision is most impressive in the climactic party sequence in which the tone suddenly changes. We move from the frenetic tempo to contemplative mood within a couple of seconds. The film builds up to a tonal shift from pure comedy to a dramatic face-off between the protagonists, but when it happens, it happens very suddenly.
Booksmart is raucous and quirky, just like real-life coming-of-age. The film weaves various strands of sexuality (female, teen, queer), and breathes new air into the genre convention, which has long needed resuscitating. It’s a hilarious and touching film – watching it the day after I finished university probably hit a bit too close to home, and yet I am already dying to watch it again.
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