REVIEW: “Booksmart”

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I’ve steadily grown more and more convinced that most of Hollywood is only interested in one particular depiction of the teenaged experience. You know, the one featuring a collection of dense, potty-mouthed teens marked by obsessions with sex, booze, and and endless supply of dumb decision-making. We get these movies all of the time. Some are more dramatic; some are straight comedies. But they all paint teens with a broad and rather boring brush.

Thankfully there have been a few anomalies – movies like “Eighth Grade” and “Lady Bird” that are both authentic and insightful. I was hoping “Booksmart” was one such welcomed aberration. Sadly it’s not and a couple of really good scenes can’t shift the balance from the overload of tired and rehashed teen movie clichés this film revels in.

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“Booksmart” is a left coast teen comedy that is sure to play well within a couple of specific groups. Many who are deeply invested in progressive ideology will love it despite it having nothing particularly profound to say (its politics are mostly found in weird name drops and shallow lip service to a handful of popular social issues). And fans of raunchy comedies will get plenty of what they like, much to the detriment of the film as a whole.

The story revolves around two smart but pretentious high school seniors. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are life-long best friends who have spent their school days with their noses buried in textbooks and looking down on fellow students. But on the eve of graduation they’re hit with with a shocking revelation – you can have fun and make good grades at the same time.

So the two set out to cram years of missed social opportunities into one night of partying and rule breaking (so much for book-smarts nurturing any kind of discernment and good judgement). What follows is a relentless series of eye-rolling antics ranging from low-brow raunch to all-out absurdity. There are a couple of emotionally strong moments but unfortunately they’re stuck within a mire of teen movie tropes and stereotypes.

It’s made more frustrating because the performances are generally good. Dever is the standout and while her character doesn’t always make sense she gives a believable and at times affecting performance. Feldstein is fine but too often she seems stuck in high gear. And then you have the sizable supporting cast playing an assortment of run-of-the-mill teen character types, many of them dialed up to 10. Some are fairly entertaining but none are especially compelling.

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Most of the issues can be tracked to the writing and direction. The screenplay was put together by a team of four writers whose apparent aspirations to be “Superbad 2.0” overtakes the meaningful story at the film’s core. And first-time director Olivia Wilde never seems to know when to pull back the reins to allow her characters room to breathe. And when we do get a deeper character moment, it’s often over in a snap and we’re quickly ushered back into the film’s manic comedy whirlwind.

“Booksmart” frames itself as a fresh take on the coming-of-age story, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I had seen these stories and certainly these characters before (or at least variations of them). Dever shines and there are a few lines of witty dialogue, but nothing here is particularly eye-opening or original. It’s your standard raunchy teen comedy full of stock characters and caricatures. It tosses out some good ideas but rarely explores them. It also portrays a linear portrait of teenaged life in America that will certainly resonate with some yet be utterly otherworldly for others. Yet another instance of “Booksmart” being unable to strike a much needed balance.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

 

23 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Booksmart”

  1. I don’t like these movies period. I realize looking back at my teen years I was as rebellious as a boy scout but my friends did not act like any of these movies depicts teen years. Sure as guys and girls we were interested in the opposite sex, but these type of crude, rude and vulgar takes, actually makes light of those years really and not in a good way. Hard pass for me.

    • It’s truly a bizarre and exhausting fascination. There are so many other teen stories to tell. From early on you can see this movie working hard to earn its place within that sub-genre. And as often happens, a potentially strong story gets buried.

      • There are compelling stories to tell but even within my own sons generation and their friends , I don’t recognize these type kids at all . In comedy it is true one often needs to go over the top or a bit tongue in cheek , but I find these vulgar comedies just lazy and not funny at all . If I want a coming of age movie I’ll take Stand By Me or even one of my sisters favs movies The Breakfast Club . Hollywood can do better .

      • Very well said. Lazy and unoriginal. And I thought the same thing. It wasn’t my experience, but lest I be called old, I have a son who is a Senior and a daughter who is a Freshman. Two completely different schools and sets of friends. Nothing remotely close to what we see in so many of these movies.

    • It’s so frustrating because there are good teen stories to tell. I can’t recommend movies like Eighth Grade and Lady Bird enough. But movies like this one are so invested in other things.

  2. Dever was great in Short Term 12. If you haven’t seen that I highly recommend it. As for this movie…I’m not interested in the slightest. It definitely doesn’t seem like my high school experience.

    • I really like Short Term 12 and forgot she was in that film. This film, she is one of the few bright lights. I’m really surprised at how many reviews refer to the film as “fresh”. For me it was faaaar from fresh.

      • I know a lot of people seem to love it. I read an article where Olivia Wilde got some celebrity friends to do a big social media push for the film. In some regards it has worked. Definitely not for me though.

    • No worries. I’m just like you. I completely respect different opinions. It’s one of the things that makes this worthwhile. 🙂

  3. I liked this more than you did but I agree with you about the screenplay. When I saw the trailer I thought it was a bit unfair it was getting all the Superbad comparisons based on that, then when I actually watched I realized they were very warranted. This film sometimes goes beat for beat with what they did. I enjoyed the friendship at the center of it at least.

    • Yes! Beat for beat indeed. And it seems so intent on being like Superbad that it loses its own identity. What’s really frustrating is that you can see the pieces there for something really good,

  4. I really hoped to see this when it was in theaters but timing has prevented it as there’s a lot of films that I want to see but now it’s not a good time for me at this moment.

  5. Thank God for you! Everyone else is raving about this movie and I watched it and I was like “really?”. I didn’t find it funny or original or interesting and frankly the whole situation where dumbass kids were accepted to good schools so easily make me doubt American education system even more than before lol And that huge puty party for Olivia Wilde on social media that her movie flopped in box office was HYSTERICAL. The marketing sucked, the trailer sucked and the movie is nothing special in spite of what some critics and majority of letterboxd think

    • To be honest I tried talking myself out of giving it such a low score. But every time I thought about the film I grew more frustrated with it. I fail to see ANY of the originality so many do. And I agree, Wilde’s social media pandering wasn’t a good look. There’s a reason it didn’t resonate with audiences.

  6. Nice review man. Can you believe the people posting their half-year Top 10 movies with this as their #1? I’ve seen them put this as number one and Endgame at #3, for instance. I’m like……ah? Ah? WHAT!?

    • Thanks! I hear you. I’ve seen on several Top 5 lists and it kind of blows my mind. I firmly believe in different opinions and all, but I had such a different experience with this movie. Can’t imagine sitting through it again.

  7. I like it a bit better than you, but I am definitely not among that group that’s portraying this as the best thing ever. It’s fine, but I’ve seen it all before. The only kinda-sorta innovation it has is that one of the leads is lesbian and NOT in love with her BFF of the same sex. Again, it’s fine, but nowhere near as good as Lady Bird and even further away from Eighth Grade.

    • You nail it – we’ve seen it all before. After writing this review I went through Rotten Tomatoes and I was stunned at how many called it “Fresh” and “original”. Just don’t see it.

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