With millennials now entering their late 20s to mid-30s (that’s right people all those stereotypical jokes about my generation are about ten years off and make you look stupid) a new generation of pre-teens and teenagers are preparing for adulthood and with that a slew of new coming-of-age films have begun to make their mark. In 2018 we saw films like “Love, Simon” and “Eighth Grade” explore a new generation of youngsters born in the 2000s who are now going through middle and high school and preparing for college in a world where self-identity, diversity, technology and social justice are all the rage. In 2019 we have probably the most in-your-face entry in this new coming-of-age collection focusing on Generation Z called “Booksmart”. I honestly didn’t even hear about this movie until maybe two weeks ago, but with great critical reviews and several people recommending it, I decided to give it a chance and see what it was all about. Compared positively to “Superbad” by many, “Booksmart” has been called a must-see for the current generation with great humor and insightful commentary. As I do, I’m here to give you my opinion on just how watchable and/or fun this movie may or may not be. This is my review of “Booksmart”.
“Booksmart” follows two best friends and high school seniors, valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and shy lesbian Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) as they approach graduation having committed most of their time in high school to studying and achieving success. Molly sees herself above most of her fellow students, having committed her time to her education instead of partying and socializing, but discovers that several popular students perceived as goof-offs also got admitted to high-level schools. She and Amy realize they spent too much time trying to be perfect students and not enough time living their lives. This inspires the two to attend a party without knowing the address leading them on numerous misadventures to find the party and embrace their wild sides before graduation. Along the way, the best friends learn more about themselves and each other as well as the students they judged so harshly in the hallways of their school.
So right away I found “Booksmart” to be a somewhat awkward experience but not in a bad way. This is a film clearly made for a generation I did not grow up in but it tuned out to be a story that I wish my generation had been able to embrace. It should be said going in that “Booksmart” tackles a lot of stereotypes and social justice themes that many people are going to find uncomfortable. In some cases that discomfort is the point and in others the stereotypes are merely a means to an end for a joke. Regardless Amy and Molly’s high school experience includes all kinds of characters from the overly effeminate gay young men to the popular kids supposedly getting by with only their looks and everything in between. With that in mind “Booksmart” initially feels like it’s defeating its own purpose by reinforcing stereotypes and expectations most young teens would scoff at today in an era where self-identity and proper representation is a key component of their lives. But then the film quickly shifts gears and we begin to see more complexity beneath the surface in both the story and the characters.
“Booksmart” starts off like a pretty normal high school party flick where brainiacs go against the grain to have a good time. In a lot of ways it sticks to the conventions associated with that theme, but it also has the audacity to challenge not only stereotypes associated with the secondary characters but the prejudices of its main characters as well. The most fascinating thing about this film for me is how much Amy and Molly grow from their adventure. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are both extremely entertaining in this picture and play off each other well as a dynamic duo. On the surface it seems like we’re supposed to root for them and see them as the better people while everyone else just “doesn’t get it” but then we’re shown a different perspective. In one shining moment in the first act, we’re introduced to the fact that maybe it’s these girls that have it wrong not everyone else. As the story progresses “Booksmart” doubles down on this idea and Amy and Molly start to look just as judgmental, selfish and closeminded as the students they’ve grown to dislike in their school, Molly because she refuses to accept that popular kids could be smart or dedicated enough to get into good schools and Amy because she sees herself as a true SJW too shy to open her mind to new experiences or speak for herself. Together they challenge viewers young and old to think outside their self-imposed box and I’ll be honest I did not expect the film to be that deep.
By the end of the third act I realized I had been suckered in to embracing stereotypes myself, judging the characters on screen the same way that our leads do. It felt like a fantastic sleight of hand by first-time director Olivia Wilde and the four-person all-women writing team behind this project. To top it all off the movie’s message of social acceptance even by those who feel in the minority never feels pretentious or overbearing. It’s seamlessly worked into simple interactions and the overarching story allowing the viewers to learn the lesson over time along with the characters rather than being beaten over the head with it all at once. There are still moments where the film jumps a little too quickly to the chase, but for the most part I felt like it was a film-long journey to understanding not just the flaws of my own generation but the lessons the youngsters of today still need to learn themselves all culminating in a powerful message of empowerment for not just women, but for Generation Z as a whole to do better as they continue to grow.
It also helps that there’s plenty of great humor to be found in “Booksmart” as well. It’s a genuinely entertaining and funny film with great writing, fun performances and a fast-paced story that keeps you on your toes the whole time. I barely had time to catch my breath after laughing at one moment before another ridiculous misadventure had me curious as to what’s next. The “doll” scene in particular, which you have to see to believe, is just so random and out there and is by far the highlight of the movie. “Booksmart” also never felt like it was trying too hard. I know I haven’t seen a lot of comedies, especially good ones, in 2019 but “Booksmart” to me is the smartest, most inspired and well-written comedy of the year so far and, in my humble opinion, is the most amusing and no-holds-barred insane comic adventure I’ve experienced to date in 2019. It’s rare these days that a comedy can so effectively blend social commentary with outright hilarity, but here we are. In an intriguing way, “Booksmart” lives up to both its name and story by being smarter than the average comedy while also not being afraid to enjoy itself and live free from the binds of its social message. It provides real laughs and great humor while also having something relevant and significant to say.
If there is something negative to be said about “Booksmart” it’s that, as I already stated once, is follows it’s story’s conventions pretty much to the letter. “Booksmart” does a lot to embrace originality and a style all its own, but at the same time it also settles for a few too many familiar story elements and a simple base structure that we’ve seen many times before. You know there will be a moment where the two friends partnership is challenged by something they should have figured out well before graduation. You know expectations of stereotypes are going to be challenged to some extent. You know they’re going to run into roadblocks and ex machinas galore in the span of a night that seems maybe a little too unrealistically long. You know there will be an inspiring message at the end that contracts the humorous nature of the rest of the film and you know there are going to be a few over-the-top scenes that just don’t work. All of that is here. But, as I’ve said in many reviews, the real test of a film is how well it can overcome its cliched nature to still feel like something all its own. “Booksmart” manages that by including timely social satire and themes that revisit classic coming of age narratives while never feeling like a straight-up knockoff. Are there a few too many clichés? Absolutely. But they do very little to detract for the quality, entertainment value, or message “Booksmart” shares loudly and proudly.
“Booksmart” turned out to be an interesting and enlightening experience for me which is a nice change of pace from more recent blockbuster films that have provided more entertainment than nuance. It has a lot to say about the stereotypes and expectations we’ve come to embrace in American high school culture. It also challenges whether or not there truly is a perfect person in any scenario as it shows our main characters, the normal outcasts usually depicted as the superior humans in any coming-of-age narrative, as just as judgmental and damaging to the concept of acceptance as the people they look down on in their own ways. As a straight-up comedy, it’s an often raucous and wild ride that kept me laughing from start to finish, sometimes uncomfortably and sometimes with a fantastic acceptance of the irony of the joke. As an insightful piece of storytelling filled with social commentary “Booksmart” feels perfectly titled as it shows that even the smartest of us all need to remember it’s what’s inside the book that counts not what’s written on the cover. It’s simply an all-around fascinating comedy that I hope is destined to become a cult classic and earn the respect is so truly deserves.