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.
“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.
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