'Booksmart' Tweaks Convention By Offering A Gentler View Of High School

May 24, 2019
Originally published on May 30, 2019 10:06 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new high school comedy "Booksmart" is the filmmaking debut of actress Olivia Wilde. It stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as high school seniors who, on the night before graduation, finally decide to stop hitting the books and go party. Our critic-at-large John Powers says that the movie stirs some new ingredients into an old formula.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: What we think of as teen movies come in two basic kinds. You have the thoughtful ones that win awards and actually seem to have been made for parents. A good example is "Eighth Grade," a film that most eighth-graders wouldn't go to on a dare. And then you have the breezy, irresponsible romps like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Dazed And Confused" and "Superbad" - you know, the ones that teenagers enjoy.

Although its title may suggest otherwise, the new movie "Booksmart" is unabashedly one of the latter. Marking the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, this lighthearted, profoundly unrealistic crowd-pleaser takes a familiar Hollywood premise and then gives it an unconventional, female-centric twirl.

Set in the 24 hours before graduation, "Booksmart" charts the adventures of two brainy best friends. There's the bossy, Yale-bound Molly - ziply (ph) played by Beanie Feldstein - who already has her entire career mapped out. And there's the quieter, more pliable Amy - played with equal skill by Kaitlyn Dever - who has come out as a lesbian, albeit to no great effect.

After years of being mocked by the cool kids, these perpetual A students who share everything, including sharp comic timing, fear that they've wasted their high school years studying. Here, Molly suggests that they correct this mistake by going to a party thrown by a handsome classmate named Nick, whom she derides for being dumb, but secretly desires.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOOKSMART")

BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) We have to go to a party tonight.

KAITLYN DEVER: (As Amy) What?

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Let's go to Nick's party.

DEVER: (As Amy) Are you kidding? No. No way.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Amy, we only have one night left to have studied and partied in high school. Otherwise, we're just going to be the girls that missed out. We haven't done anything. We haven't broken any rules.

DEVER: (As Amy) OK. We've broken a lot of rules. One, we have fake IDs.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Fake college IDs so we can get into their 24-hour library.

DEVER: (As Amy) Name one person whose life was so much better because they broke a couple of rules.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Picasso.

DEVER: (As Amy) Yes. He broke art rules. Name a person who broke a real rule.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Rosa Parks.

DEVER: (As Amy) Name another one.

FELDSTEIN: (As Molly) Susan B. Anthony.

DEVER: (As Amy) Damn it.

POWERS: Putting their big brains on hold, Molly and Amy doll themselves up and sally forth to Nick's party. On the way, the night becomes a cockeyed odyssey that carries them to several other parties, where they encounter other oddballs from their senior class - the clueless rich boy, sweetly played by Skyler Gisondo, who has everything except friends; the theater guy - that's Noah Galvin - who's putting on an immersive play in his home; and the perma-zonked party girl - that's Billie Lourd - who, no matter where Molly and Amy go, is always somehow already there.

Now, all of this might sound par for a high school movie. And in many ways, it is. "Booksmart" offers the familiar split between the in kids and the outs, the obligatory drug scene and barfing, not to mention the cartoonish vision of adults. Amy's goofily benevolent mom and dad, played by Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte, seem like refugees from an "SNL" skit. Their broadness made me yearn for the grown-ups in Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird," whose greater emotional resonance was inseparable from the wounding tension between young and old.

Then again, Wilde is making a different kind of movie - more commercial, less personal. And by those standards, it's impressive how "Booksmart" tweaks convention, starting with gender. Scripted by four women, this tale of deep female friendship and the ways it's tested doesn't seek to compete with the guys in the raunch department. The dialogue is less coarse, and the handling of sex - don't even ask me about the stuffed panda - is weirder, more convoluted and less wish-fulfilling than in the countless male versions we've all seen.

"Booksmart" avoids the oppressively rigid notion of social caste that defines most high school movies, with their mean girls and thuggish jocks who lift geeks by their ankles and dunk their heads in the toilet. Yes, some students say cutting things, but there are no real villains and none of the vicious bigotries of race, class, gender and personal style that I remember from high school. It's no big deal that Amy is gay and has a crush on a skateboard chick. Indeed, the movie brims with a 2019 sense of inclusiveness that, as a friend remarked, feels positively utopian. It's set in a sunnier world, with gentler high schools, than the one we actually live in.

Over the course of their crazy night out, the judgmental Molly comes to realize that nobody is quite what they seem, which is an idea that we can extend to the film's director. Just as Gerwig became famous playing the daffy girl, so Wilde is known for roles that prized her looks over her intelligence. Yet, like Gerwig, she's clearly paid attention to what was happening behind the cameras she was performing for. She's film-smart.

While her movie isn't quite the comic triumph that some hyperbolic critics may claim, it's a confident debut that, when I saw it, got roars of laughter from teens and grown-ups alike.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new film "Booksmart," opening in theaters everywhere today.

On Monday's FRESH AIR, a conversation with Elton John about how he went from being a shy boy who studied classical piano to a performer known for his outrageous costumes and extravagant shows. His new biopic "Rocketman" opens in theaters Friday. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOUGLAS & BARENBERG & MEYER'S "BIG BUG SHUFFLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.