Inspired chemistry is hampered by mishandled subtext in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut

Patrick Preziosi on Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’ (2019)

Though Booksmart is routinely touted as the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, the actress-turned-director’s unabashedly 2019 take on the last day of high school also boasts four writers, none of them her. Wilde proves herself more than competent for her first feature outing — adept at crafting a few poetic sequences that break from reality and explore pure teen fantasy — so it’s resoundingly disappointing that the film face-plants at the cause of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, whose script fails both its director and the acting talent she’s surrounded it with. Booksmart’s net is simply cast too wide, and any goodwill it may initially draw is thoroughly sapped by the film’s end, resulting in some painfully regressive caricatures of the kinds of characters it claims to be championing.

Its focus on two overachieving high school seniors, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), places Booksmart within a new emergent type of young adult films that forgoes crass, surface level humour for a funny-until-it’s-not discomfort, that at least attempts something like honesty (think Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Susan Johnson’s All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, or Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade). However, Amy and Molly’s standing on their school’s social ladder is somewhat refreshing in the face of a recent fetishising of the unpopular girl and her plight. They’re proud teacher’s pets with not much of a social life outside of each other (they prefer the 24 hour UCLA library over partying) but are perfectly content, legitimately excited about the amount of knowledge they’ve amassed. Molly is class president and is heading to Yale, aspiring to be the youngest Supreme Court Justice, while Amy is slated for Columbia, but not before a service trip to Botswana teaching the local populace to make tampons. Their classmates do poke fun at them, but they’re not pariahs; rather, there exists the unspoken understanding that they’d rather go to a protest or read Virginia Woolf than spend their weekends shotgunning beers and whatnot.

That is until Molly discovers she’s not the only one going to Yale, least the only one with a reputable post-high school plan. Triple A (Molly Gordon), given such an unfortunate nickname for how she gives “roadside assistance” to guys, will also be at Yale; Molly’s knuckle-headed Vice-President, Nick (Mason Gooding) is going to Georgetown; human cartoon Gigi (Billie Lourd, in perhaps the film’s most thinly developed role) will be at her “fifth choice”, Harvard; even Theo (Eduardo Franco), who failed the seventh grade twice, will be coding for Google! This being the very last day of school before graduation is of no solace to a distraught Molly, who sees her four intensely studious years invalidated by those she was so convinced she’d be leaving behind. It’s here where Booksmart seems to be building towards the tried-and-true adage of “don’t judge a book by its cover!”, but then subsequently loses its own plot.

With little time devoted to actual reflection on this rude awakening, Molly then throws down the gauntlet to Amy: it’s time to party, to at least experience one night of the kind of debauchery they so carefully avoided. Amy is nervous at first, but Molly nudges her with the romantic implications: Amy’s skateboarding crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), will be at the party being thrown at Nick’s aunt’s house—conveniently stranded on a cruise, ensuring that it’ll definitely be a rager. However, for these two girls who’ve sequestered themselves socially, finding the address of the party, and actually getting there prove to be no easy task.

This obliviousness, employed broadly across all kinds of comedy, is the convenient stepping stone for the increasingly wacky situations the girls find themselves in. It’s also in this comedic-mode that the film figures itself in the lineage of Superbad (2007), with the party as the Holy Grail of endpoints. However, this quest never truly meshes with the girls’ own socially hyper-conscious outlooks, as they unfold exclusively from each other, rather than being complementary. While Superbad was utterly enamoured with its own crassness and male wish fulfilment (recently disowned by its star, Jonah Hill) it at least never felt at odds with itself.

It’s really only the chemistry between Feldstein and Dever that is able to carry a series of pre-party sequences, as the writers hinge much of the would-be jokes on the totally unreadable character of Gigi, who seems to exist solely to cause detours. Armed with a propensity for destruction and psychedelic strawberries, Gigi is employed almost whenever the girls need to move from one set-piece to the next, with any sort of aerodynamism completely shelved. Gigi’s hallucinogenic fruit is the reason for a truly surreal and unique sequence in which Amy and Molly are suddenly Barbie-esque dolls, animated in stop motion and given a prime opportunity to comment on the sexist proportions of such toys. By the next scene, however, the effect has completely disappeared, and even later, Gigi’s erratic behaviour is chalked up to how she’s just “lonely”, which just feels like an absolute deflation considering everything that’s preceded.

Gigi is not the only one who suffers from this kind of narrative check-boxing. Booksmart also features a pair of caddy, theatre obsessed gay kids, and a sweet, though rich, try-hard named Jared (Skyler Gisondo) who claims no one really knows him. And most egregiously, a minority character played purely for laughs, especially when one of his handful of jokes is about how he’s Mexican. Though the film’s central duo of two best friends, one queer, one straight, is long overdue, it doesn’t excuse the mishandling of auxiliary minority characters, especially when steeped in such blatant stereotype.

The girls loudly stated progressivism is then suspect, as it becomes an establishing point for both, but then becomes little more than accessorised throughout: a Black Lives Matter poster there, an Elizabeth Warren sticker there, though no real discourse outside any of the jokes, nor any true examples of selfless dissent. When it’s revealed Amy is actually spending a year in Botswana, deferring Columbia until next fall, the decision is intended as a fracturing moment between the two friends, but manages only to be a flex of privilege (and earlier, a groan-worthy joke about how “gross” gay men find women’s bodies). Perhaps it’s an unfair assessment, to read so much into characters’ decision making in a high school comedy, but when one hole is poked in Booksmart, the whole thing comes toppling down, as it stacks its themes of acceptance precariously atop the underlying moments of privilege. Only white characters are given the opportunity to explain themselves, but even then, are we really supposed to believe these rich west coast kids got into college purely on the basis of academic merit? The fact that this comes so soon after the recent college admissions scandal makes this blind spot all the more disappointing. Such is the frustration at Booksmart’s core, it being the kind of film that trades only in hypothetically agreeable blanket statements, but can’t even pull off a single coherent moment of progressive universality, instead hoping that its consistently contradictory treatment of its subjects goes unnoticed.

Showing in cinemas now

Patrick Preziosi

By Patrick Preziosi

Patrick Preziosi is a freelance critic from Brooklyn, NY. He’s written about film, music and literature for photogénie, Ultra Dogme, Metrograph Edition, Little White Lies, America Magazine, and Screen Slate.