Review: Booksmart

Written by Lori Franklin.

I’m going to be honest. When this review opportunity popped up in our inbox, I took it solely because it was for a movie about girls. You see, the thing is, I’m tired of watching movies about men’s stories. It’s been twenty-something years, and I’ve reached a point where I just don’t care anymore … I don’t care about the superheroes or the ten-millionth instalment of the Transformers. I don’t care about the action flicks or the recycled trashy comedies or the new Bond movie. Honestly, just give me some complicated, funny, intelligent, well-rounded stories about women!

So, I went to see Booksmart, and I can tell you upfront: it has tons of femme characters of all kinds. On top of that, it’s Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut and is almost exclusively written and produced by women. The main focus of the film is teenage friends Molly and Amy. These two feminist book nerds have spent their school years doing the right thing, getting good grades, and hanging out together. Which is just fine, until Molly realises that plenty of their peers have managed to both party and get into good colleges. The girls decide to throw the rule-book out the window and crash some parties on their last night before graduation. Of course, nothing quite goes to plan and—no spoilers—the evening gets wildly away from them.

A loud, hip-hop and pop-infused soundtrack keeps the film thumping along at a cracking pace for its 105-minute run time, with an occasional gratuitous slow-mo shot thrown in for good measure. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have an enjoyable dynamic, and the script has endless exchanges of bantery dialogue that whizz backwards and forwards between them as they blunder through the wild evening. But here’s the best part:  this movie is funny. Not cheap laughs or dirty humour kind of funny—although there are some pretty inappropriate bits and this is definitely not a movie for kids—but actually genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I’m not usually one for comedy, but these girls had me giggling.

Although this is a movie about teenagers, with a matching cast of high school stereotypes, Booksmart manages to steer itself to a somewhat more progressive destination. Feminist iconography and affirmations greet us in the first scene and are soon followed by a lesbian protagonist, a gender-neutral bathroom, and at least a fleeting acknowledgement of the difference between sexuality and gender identity. The high schoolers themselves get to be slightly more nuanced than their stereotypes suggest, and they challenge some outdated notions like slut-shaming and girls propping up the patriarchy. Not exactly revolutionary, but the mentions of feminist icons like Ruth Bader-Ginsberg or Malala Yousafzai that are sprinkled throughout bring a casual-ness to the politics of the film that feels like a step in the right direction.

I dragged a friend with me to the screening, and as we were leaving on (what I thought was) a buoyant tide of feel-good warm-and-fuzzies, I asked how he liked the film. His response was so negative that at first, I thought he was joking: he wasn’t. I was incredulous. Had we even been watching the same film?

We got a late-night snack and talked it out. We were able to agree there were some questionable side-plots that were very much unnecessary: at one point, a teacher crosses some serious boundaries and becomes extremely problematic. Was I just blinded by the feminist joy I felt being able to watch two girls be each other’s biggest fans on screen? Molly and Amy hype each other up at every opportunity, and openly discuss masturbation, porn, and sexuality, but they also call each other out on their shit. It was refreshing to see these two girls navigate both their changing dynamic and graduation milestones with honesty and humour. There was a youthful innocence to their friendship, and to the whole movie itself that managed to shine through even the more Hollywood-esque plot-points.

My friend initially disagreed, thinking the movie was shallow and faux-feminist, citing its main take-away as something akin to ‘school grades don’t matter so just be a fuck-up instead’. I argued the movie was really about stepping out of the box you or society might have put yourself in, and trying to see other people more clearly for who they are outside of limited social contexts. After we dissected it scene by scene, he came to see the movie in a more positive light, but I found myself asking him: ‘Does every movie have to have a message? When you watch an action movie, are you looking for a hidden ideology?’

There’s a double standard in the way that we as a society critique stories. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m into my fourth year of studying literature so I fully understand the importance of thinking critically about the media we consume. But my point is that movies about women should be allowed to be shallow sometimes too. They should be allowed to be as successful or crappy as any other movie made about men. We can extend this to include movie representation for black people, queer people, people of colour, disabled people, big-bodied people, and anyone else who doesn’t strictly fit in the category of straight white male. All of us deserve to be represented in movies, whether they be intrinsically well made or not.

So feminist gold standard or not, problematic content and all, Booksmart gave me an opportunity to see someone like me reflected on screen.

Lori’s work appears in the Colour, Order, and Myth editions of WORDLY Magazine.

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