SXSW 2019 Review: Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is a Smart and Hysterical Love-Letter to Outcasts of All Ages.
As a long time fan of Wilde’s work, I’ve often felt like she has been overlooked in Hollywood despite her incredible range as an actress. Her role as Alex Kelly on The OC launched her career back in 2004, and since then Wilde has continued to embrace different projects ranging from comedy to action to drama. Over the past few years, Wilde has done some work behind the scenes as a producer. Wilde has produced various documentary shorts as well as three feature films; Drinking Buddies, Meadowland, and A Viligante, all of which she starred in. Booksmart is Wilde’s directorial debut, and with this film, she has proven to be a triple threat.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends who do everything together. As their high school graduation rapidly approaches, they can’t stop thinking about the future. Molly and Amy have worked hard to get good grades and as a result, have gotten into their dream schools. Molly has been accepted into Yale and Amy will be going to Columbia after spending some time volunteering in Botswana. While trying to keep the news a secret from their classmates, Molly overhears a group of students bashing her in the bathroom. As it turns out, many of her peers have gotten into top-schools despite their lack of focus on their studies. Shocked by this news, Molly and Amy set out to cram four years worth of fun and partying into a single evening.
Coming of age/teen party movies have gotten a lot of love since the 70s. There have been hundreds upon hundreds of films made about high school, partying, and discovering who you are. The majority of John Hughes career in the 80s was working on movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The success of these charming and sweet coming of age films continued throughout the mid-90s. However, in the late 90s and 2000s, there was a shift. The movie became more focused on sexual situations and gross-out humor rather than actual character development. Movies like Superbad and American Pie are memorable not because of great characters but because of the gags that are associated with them.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a significant shift in coming of age films where more and more stories are centered around women. Films like Lady Bird, Summer 03, The Edge of Seventeen, To All the Boys I Loved Before, and Eighth Grade have been so refreshing because they are female-driven stories instead of male. Also, these films contain so many great tropes from the movies that have come before them. The coming-of-age film has only gotten better over time, and I believe a lot of that has to do with having female filmmakers offering different perspectives.
Booksmart is one of the best coming-of-age films of all time. It takes all of the typical teen movie tropes and reinvents them. There hasn’t been a single coming of age film, at least, not one that I can recall, that features a smart plus-size female in the lead that isn’t being used as the butt of a joke. Beanie Feldstein’s portrayal as Molly is one that is grounded in reality. She is a real person and not some generic stereotype. She is whip-smart and likable but often judgemental of those around her. Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy is a feminist who rarely takes risks and is afraid to speak up for herself. Feldstein and Dever bring an incredible level of enthusiasm and authenticity to their roles. The two of them have such a natural on-screen dynamic that feels as though you are watching two friends rather than actors acting. This is very rare to see especially in a coming of age film because the characters typically seem like caricatures rather than actual people who exist in the world.
As someone who always felt uncool in high school and college, Booksmart serves as a love letter to anyone who has ever felt like they didn’t belong. Molly and Amy may not be cool girls, but the film never portrays them as losers which is something that a lot of these types of films tend to struggle with. At no point during the movie does the audience feel bad for Molly or Amy for putting their studies first. Molly and Amy are smart women, and I applaud the writers for celebrating that.
Another thing that is so refreshing about Booksmart is that the film is centered around the girls trying to prove that they know how to have fun rather than getting drunk or trying to lose their virginity. I am so sick and tired of teen party movies where all the characters do is drink and try to get laid. It is also refreshing to see that the film is more focused on Molly and Amy’s friendship rather than anything else. You get to see how these two are friends and why they get along so well. The two of them play off each other so perfectly.
Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katherine Silberman, and Emily Halpern worked together to write Booksmart. I must applaud these four writers for not only breaking down stereotypes but also writing jokes that are truly smart and funny. Multiple scenes made me laugh out loud, but the stop-motion animation sequence is one of the best scenes in the entire film. I won’t go into detail about it because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it isn’t only hilarious but creative as well.
Olivia Wilde poured her heart and soul into this film which can be seen in every single frame. Booksmart does not feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker but instead the work of a seasoned director. Wilde spoke during the Q&A about how she grew up watching coming-of-age films and drew her inspiration from a lot of the classics like The Breakfast Club and Clueless. However, what is so commendable about Booksmart is that Wilde has made a film that stands out. Wilde has broken down conventional story arcs while creating a film that feels entirely fresh and original.
I am hoping that with the success of Booksmart more female filmmakers will be hired to tell their stories. As an avid fan of coming of age films, I can tell you that there is a huge difference when a movie is written and directed by women. Booksmart offers a fresh new take on the classic coming of age story. Wilde and the four writers have created a modern classic that will be watched and cherished for generations to come. Keep your eye on Olivia Wilde because she is a director on the rise.