The praise party thrown for Booksmart had me wondering if Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut might be the first high-school sex comedy to earn a Best Picture nod.

Then came the second wave: cries for critics to settle down, peppered with a few dubious complaints that Wilde’s idea of high school was “unrealistic,” especially in its idea that maybe we can all get along.

That sparked some snarky comebacks, but I’m not sure “the backlash to the backlash” ever became a thing.

So, the joint is almost empty now. Argumentative cinephiles have moved on, getting worked up about whether Jim Jarmusch’s zombie movie is a work of genius or inexcusable laziness. And here I am, conflict-averse, and taking an hour-long break from grading finals for college freshmen. Why not step up to the Booksmart mic, long after the opening-weekend professionals have moved on, and share my thoughts with anybody who might still be listening?

I’m not here to stir up excitement: I won’t hail Booksmart as a game-changer in its genre, nor will I dismiss it as derivative. But since I’m in grading mode, I’ll go ahead and turn in a report card on several points: the movie’s strengths and weaknesses and its most distinctive contribution to the genre.

Booksmart‘s Box-Office Blues

First, for the record: a few thoughts on Booksmart‘s box-office sufferings. I don’t think this is “wilde” speculation:

Streaming media has made so much accessible — and free — that it takes a lot to get kids to leave their rooms (or their campus) and buy big-screen tickets. They smile at me politely when I serve up details about opening weekends, streaming options, and rental fees. “We know how to find it,” they say. “We have our ways.” And that, of course, is their way of saying they can find the movie for free on illegal back channels.

Few of my freshman undergrads buy good-old-fashioned movie tickets more than once a month, and when they do they’re unlikely to see anything that doesn’t have a big star in the lead. I asked 80 undergrads this quarter how many of them have seen Lady Bird, and only seven raised their hands. Many said they’d never heard of it.

What does inspire them? The promise of screaming at jump-scares with their friends. (A Quiet Place did huge opening-weekend business with my students.) The promise of revelations in a big-budget, special-effects-saturated franchise that they really care about, like Marvel or Hogwarts. (They buzzed about Endgame on a daily basis during the months before it opened, then went surprisingly quiet as soon as it arrived.)

So even though Booksmart seems custom-made to become their new favorite comedy, I don’t expect to see many hands raised when I ask about it in September.

And that’s a shame. It’s better than so many movies they will see. It’s about them and the things that matter to them most. And it would give us all so much to discuss.

Disclaimer: I’m Not Booksmart‘s Target Audience — and I Know It

I don’t dislike teen comedies. I was a huge Better Off Dead fan in the ’80s; I saw Heathers enough times in 1989 to be able to quote the dialogue as it played; I became an Emma Stone fan when Easy A arrived; Sing Street strikes me as very nearly perfect, a film I recommend to everybody all the time; and The Edge of Seventeen — while more of a drama than a comedy — is just outstanding.

Nevertheless, I approached Booksmart as I approached any teen comedy that advertises a focus on sex: with extreme caution.

I was hopeful. Nothing gives me more hope for the future of cinema than the increasing leadership of women in filmmaking and the increasing representation of neglected perspectives across culture, ethnicity, and gender. I was intrigued by the praise for Wilde’s direction and by notes on Beanie Feldstein, who memorably made so much of a minor role in Lady Bird.

But I was also deeply skeptical. I’ll talk about why, so stay tuned.

Here’s my report…

What Works…

I was impressed from the opening scene by this endearingly enthusiastic duo. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Bernie Feldstein) are naive and bookworm-ish, but they’re not boring: they’re irresistibly charismatic besties, and we want to see their bright lights get caught up in the swirl of their senior-class kaleidoscope. That’s the premise: They’re discovering, just before graduation, that they’ve made a terrible mistake. By focusing solely (and, perhaps, snobbishly) on academic excellence, they’ve missed out on fun.

And I’m rooting for them. My high school and college experiences were both joyously unpredictable adventures, full of academic rewards and the hijinks of hilarious relationships. I spoke at graduation and I planned my graduating class’s irreverent and unsupervised talent show. I obsessed over my grades and I cornered my impossible crush in a moment of wild ambition to declare my undying love (to disastrous results). I want Amy and Molly to learn about more than earning good grades. I want them to laugh themselves sick at parties, to improvise their way out of trouble, to take risks and make moves on their first fierce crushes, to cast off their inhibitions and seize the karaoke microphone.

It’s rare enough to see a female friendship in such sharp cinematic focus. It’s even rarer for lead characters to be more interesting themselves than their supporting cast. Don’t get me wrong — in Booksmart, we’re witnessing the introduction of a whole new menu of young talents who will show up in great movies for years to come. The whole cast here is outstanding. But usually it’s secondary characters and villains that make the strongest impressions in movies like this; they get to go to extremes, while heroes have to be stable and, um, “relatable.”

As Amy and Molly, Dever and Feldstein could carry a franchise. They’re dynamite.

Wilde celebrates all of it with consistently compelling cinematography and a perfectly pitched, carefully curated pop-music soundtrack. This movie is a fireworks show for the eyes and ears. As Amy and Molly pinball from one point in Los Angeles to another, we navigate their various vehicles, parties, disorientations, erotic entanglements, and awkward encounters with teachers and law enforcement without ever losing our place or struggling to sort out the large cast of characters. Each one arrives fully-formed, with a distinctive personality and amusing idiosyncrasies. While the highly praised pool party scene isn’t nearly as affecting as the one in Eighth Grade, it’s captured and choreographed with a gorgeous and delirious grace.

What Doesn’t…

Here’s where I’m uncomfortable with the film’s fundamental premise:

It seems to suggest that the fun Amy and Molly have been missing equals sexual adventurism and very little else.

Yes, there’s a karaoke scene about casting off inhibitions. Yes, there are encounters in which the girls and their classmates discover how much they’ve underestimated each other. But Amy and Molly’s determination to find the biggest most popular party in town is quickly revealed to be a quest for sexual rites of passage. And, whether that was typical of your high school experience or not, that seems like an unfortunately simplistic aspiration for this otherwise extravagant and imaginative motion picture.

I’ve never had patience for films that take sex lightly — especially films pitched as entertainment for young people who (like adults, let’s face it) too easily confuse their hormones and their heart. (And then there’s wisdom, which neither hormones nor the heart are inclined to embrace without first making mistakes.) I saw too many young people who scoffed at the idea of restraint end up learning hard and even life-altering lessons. Socially awkward as I was, I wasn’t dating in high school — not yet. Nevertheless, because of strong examples in my family, ideals illustrated in literature and art, and convictions cultivated by faith, I had come to hope for something more substantial, generous, and holistic than hasty carnal engagement. And I hated to see any of my close friends in high school treated as trophies or conquests, just as I hated seeing those who exercised restraint mocked as cowards or snobs.

Fortunately, I don’t have many memories, good or bad, about sex being a major priority or a major problem among my classmates.  Most movies about romance, sex, and love that were marketed to my generation seemed to have been imagined by writers who didn’t know what they were talking about. Perhaps Booksmart‘s characters will seem familiar to you, perhaps not. I remember that my close friends and I were aware of that sex-obsessed-teen stereotype and made fun of it; we were just as interested (if not more so) in movies, music, and sports. And if were obsessed with anything it was a particular variety of comedy-one-upsmanship.

Whatever — it’s one thing to represent typical teenage appetites; it’s another thing to confuse those appetites with a moral compass. Insofar as that goes, there are aspects of this movie’s conclusion that I can tell I’m supposed to celebrate, but instead I end up disappointed and less-than hopeful about these characters’ future happiness.

Worst of all, the film’s preoccupation with sex crosses a line when it draws teachers into its tale-spinning. I’m always happy to see Jessica Williams, and she’s perfectly cast as Miss Fine, a Cool Teacher, here. At first she gives the film an admirable adult anchor: she seems wise, stable, and insightful about her students (much more so than the awkward but affable principal played by Jason Sudekis). But I’m not so happy to see Miss Fine become a punchline by giving in to the sexual proposition of a smitten male student.

Do I have to point out how audiences would have righteously rioted if the teacher had been male (and played by Kevin Spacey)? Maybe you’ll find this particular twist amusing. I did not. But even if it makes us laugh, we need to note that we’re being goaded into taking lightly a dynamic that, in the real world, leads to serious consequences.

Realistic? “Relatable”?

Don’t get me wrong: I laughed a lot at Booksmart — more than I expected to. No, I can’t join the hallelujah chorus: It doesn’t have anything that inspired me as much as the non-conformist rage of Heathers or the contagious joy of Sing Street. But I don’t find much cause for complaint, either: I enjoyed the company of Booksmart‘s characters, and I especially appreciate how generous and gracious it is with all of them. It has a refreshing lack of villains and a smart avoidance of scapegoats and stereotypes. (I’ve never seen Superbad, so I have no opinion about how this film measures up to it.)

Did I find it relatable? That’s a word being thrown around by some of its critics, and it’s also a word that my students use more than any other term to explain why they like something. The fact is, I don’t care: I don’t go to the movies to find something relatable. I go to the movie to experience other perspectives, other contexts, other ways of being in the world.

If the audience reaction I witnessed at my matinee of Booksmart is any indication, this is obviously familiar ground for most, and my high school experience qualifies me as a visitor from another planet. The only moments in high-school comedies that have ever felt even fleetingly familiar have come from the awkward social bonds formed between outsiders in Napoleon Dynamite; the joy of extracurricular creativity cultivated by the young musicians of Sing Street; and the struggle for spiritual authenticity in a context of self-righteousness and hypocrisy in Saved! So, no — I don’t relate much to the characters in Booksmart. They’re too cliquish, too sex-obsessed, and — in most cases — too wealthy for me to recognize their world.

But I do relate to it in another way. I love the way this movie loves its community.

Me, I loved high school, I loved my classes, my classmates, my curricular and extracurricular activity. I enjoyed the company of almost everybody in my (very small) class (of about 60). And when I graduated, I didn’t want to say goodbye to anybody. In the video of our final moments, we are celebrating in the hallways with wild abandon. But we are also in tears, our arms around each other, distraught at the thought of going our separate ways.

So I guess that I’m grateful that, for all of these characters’ preoccupations with getting laid as if it’s the Meaning of Life, Booksmart plays with such heart, such an inclination toward empathy, and such a determination to liberate each and every teen character from the constraints of typical categories and stereotypes. Like Napoleon Dynamite, this is a movie full of individuals, of human beings, not types.

And while the movie prioritizes delivering a kind of sexual “graduation” for its characters so highly that I found myself getting impatient, I’m glad that it ultimately ends up caring most about its central friendship — much the way that Lady Bird (which I find much more rewarding than Booksmart) ends up caring most about its central mother/daughter bond.

I can only hope this movie will inspire this kind of inclusivity, welcome, and grace — not only in future stories told in this genre, but in its target audience, the one growing up in a world that is increasingly dividing into judgmental, vindictive camps. After all, I learned to value grace by burying my nose in books. I hope more movies will make it possible for upcoming generations who show an alarming disinterest in reading.


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