Review of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart

Developmentally Edited by Alexandra Hidalgo
Copy Edited and Posted by Jessica Gibbons

Booksmart (2019). 105 minutes. Directed by Olivia Wilde. Featuring Kaitlyn Denver and Beanie Feldstein.

Booksmart is the beautiful, funny, unique, feminist coming-of-age film everyone needs in their lives.

The movie opens with one of the two main characters, Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein, sitting on the floor of her bedroom, meditating. We see that she has pictures and posters up in her room of powerful women such as Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her walls are a pale pink, lined with rows and rows of books. We then see her cap and gown, complete with a sash that labels her as valedictorian. I immediately knew I was going to like her. These establishing shots set the tone for the entire film. The cinematography is beautiful throughout, but there are several moments when it is stunning. For example, there is a scene later in the film where Amy is swimming, looking for something, and I found this shot to be particularly stunning.

The second leading character, Amy, played by Kaitlyn Dever, picks Molly up for their last day of high school. The movie quickly depicts these characters as two strong young girls who are hard workers, feminists, and unapologetically themselves. Feldstein and Dever have strong chemistry and were able to play off each other well and portray believable best friends. The film establishes early how the friends support each other in academics, relationships, and through problems. During my favorite moments in the film, we see their unconditional support when they are getting dressed up, and they bounce off one another, giving increasingly ridiculous and high compliments.

At school, in the bathroom, Molly overhears three of her classmates  talking about her and criticizing her. Molly confronts them, and in the process learns that Triple A also got accepted to Yale and would be attending there in the fall. Molly doesn’t believe this and accuses Triple A of not caring enough about school for that to be possible. Triple A responds with one of my favorite quotes from the movie: “No. We just don’t only care about school.”

Molly freaks out, learning many of her classmates she believed were not on her level also got into prestigious schools. This causes her to reflect back on her time in high school. She confesses to Amy that she is afraid they missed out, that they could have focused on school while also attending the occasional party. They decide that, since it’s their last night before graduation, they have to go to a party. They have to experience everything they have been missing out on.

There were so many things about this movie I found absolutely stunning and refreshing. For one, the portrayal of the two friends, Molly and Amy, is very real and so fun. They don’t shy away from topics that are normally seen as taboo for girls to talk about, like mastrubation and sexuality, and they are unapologetically smart and themselves. They decide to go to the party not to impress anyone or because they feel they have to, but because they want to do it for themselves. The girls felt so real, like actual high schoolers, rather than a stereotype high school movies usually feed their audiences. I’ve only been out of high school for two years, and I remember my friends and I talking much like Molly and Amy.

In an interview with NPR, director Olivia Wilde said, “We wanted the audience to go on this journey of realizing that every stereotype they expect from a teen high school film is actually not what it seems—and that there’s complexity and nuance to these characters that I hope will inspire people to allow for that same complexity in their peers and in themselves today.” I think this was illustrated wonderfully through the main characters and many of the side characters.

Wilde, an accomplished actor herself, has the experience necessary to direct a film like Booksmart. Her time in front of the camera has prepared her to take on the role as director. Having worked with a variety of directors and actors, Wilde would know how to efficiently communicate to her cast and crew about what she wants in her film.

Another thing I loved was the way the story used the character’s love interests as a plot point, not as the plot. Molly and Amy are allowed to have crushes and explore their feelings without it being the thing that defines them. I especially appreciated how Amy’s character arc was explored through this. Amy is openly a lesbian, and her crush and feelings are just as valid through the movie as her straight friends’. This isn’t a coming out story; Amy doesn’t face any prejudice or hatred because she is gay, and her parents know and are completely accepting of it. Amy is a lesbian, but this isn’t what defines her character or her story arc, which is refreshing to see. With many high school television shows and movies, I often find myself thinking “who acts/talks like that?” The most immediate example I can think of is Riverdale. No high schooler acts the way those characters do. This takes away from the story for me. With Booksmart, the students all acted and talked like high schoolers really do. I found it easier to relate to these characters and it was a more believable story.

The only jarring thing from the film for me was a scene where Molly and Amy accidentally get high and the film is then animated for a few minutes. It was distracting and I didn’t feel that it had much significance to the overall plot, besides the girls being able to check another thing off the high school bucket list. Although it might have been intended as a magical, fun sequence, for me, it felt out of place, with the rest of the film being live action and the animated scene never being mentioned or referenced to again. There was also a subplot where a teacher has a relationship with a student. It is emphasized that the student is 20, since he was held back, but this still rubbed me the wrong way. I personally didn’t feel that it served anything to the overall plot and that it was just there for comedic purposes, and I think the movie could have gone without it. Both the student and the teacher are minor characters and this relationship did not add to Molly or Amy’s story in any significant way. These are all very minor complaints, especially considering how this film captured the feminist high school experience in such a true and enjoyable manner.

Throughout the movie, the soundtrack plays a significant role, especially when Molly and Amy get to the party. The soundtrack is a good mix of older and more current music. The older pop songs give a nostalgic feeling, while the new songs keep us in the present. There is a karaoke scene, and I thought the song choice was excellent for both the character and the moment. I won’t say more, because spoilers!

There’s not too much more I can say without spoiling the movie, but seriously, I loved it. It is so important for us to support films like this in theatres if we want more unique, feminist, beautiful stories on the big screen. If you missed it in the theaters, make sure to see it when it is available to purchase on DVD or streaming. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in a theatre in a long time.

Find more information about Booksmart by visiting its website. You can learn more about Kara by checking out her profile.