Booksmart is a Hilariously Fresh Teen Comedy

Chirag Mangnaik

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5/5

 

The teen movie genre is often the genre with the least innovation. Characters are often dull and repetitive, and, the movies can feel like too-safe cash-grabs. Perhaps, then, Booksmart’s commercial failure is indicative of something more.

Booksmart is incomparable. To call it just a teen comedy would be folly. Booksmart is whip-smart and blisteringly fast. Most of Booksmart takes place over the course of two days, unlike most teen comedies, which will often chronicle weeks, or even months. They rarely deal with a teenager’s day-to-day, instead choosing to focus on the plot. By sidestepping this, Booksmart provides a window into the life of a teenager, without sacrificing humor or pathos.

The film offers an empathetic look into each characters’ lives, never once seeming mean-spirited or presumptive. The film starts out with characters that seem like they’re tropes. You have a Tracy Flick-esque nerdy overachiever (Molly), the druggie that seems to know everything (Gigi), the rich kid that’s trying too hard to gain people’s affection (Jared), the mean girl (Hope), the teacher who is teaching because they never wanted to leave high school (Mrs. Fine), the guy with the hots for the teacher (Theo), the girl with a scandalous reputation (Annabelle a.k.a. “Triple A”) and the dumb jock (Nick). The only character that doesn’t immediately resemble a stereotype is Amy. But, the stereotypes are quickly shown to be merely a means to an end, and the film quickly gets rid of any assumptions that the characters might elicit. The inciting incident, for instance, of the film, is when Molly realizes that even the irresponsible students are going to good schools (which is what brought about one of the most memorable lines in the film: “It was my fifth choice. Harvard”). It sets the stage for a film that never ceases to surprise, simply by the depth that it affords each character. By the end of the film, the audience can connect to each of the characters no matter our predisposed attitude towards them.

But, the film succeeds most subtly in its technically superior moments. The aforementioned scene where Molly gets a splash of cold water to the face (both literally and metaphorically) is shot spectacularly, with the rare use of shaky cam used to describe the unsteadiness of Molly’s world. What ensues, is a celebration of the school ending with streamers, confetti, a fire extinguisher, condom water balloons. And the realization that the people participating in this decadently mindless and, almost primal festivities are going to go to Stanford, Yale, Georgetown and even, in one case, Google the following year. And, amongst them, are Molly and Amy, the only people who were duped into thinking that you had to sacrifice a life to get into a good college. There were a couple of other scenes which displayed extraordinary technical prowess. The scene in the pool, for instance, was extremely moving and perfectly set up the film’s more serious third act. It was gorgeous and transcendental and definitely unexpected in a teen comedy. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the four-minute long take of the argument between Molly and Amy. It is an incredibly moving showcase of Kaitlyn Dever’s acting chops as well as Olivia Wilde’s direction.

There is a lot of talk of the doll scene in the film, which I thought was unsuccessful and didn’t work in the context of the film. I’m all for using innovative techniques that depart from the expectations of a film, but I thought the main characters’ drug trip as dolls felt out of place. It’s not that the stop motion was bad, nor was the drug trip itself a bad idea, but it just felt unpleasantly bizarre. Like I’d accidentally been dropped into a different movie for a couple of minutes.

Booksmart is revolutionary filmmaking. It is, hopefully, a sign of things to come. A sign that teen movies will finally have some effort put into them.

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