Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Booksmart’ Goes Full Lebowski

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Movies about teenagers coming of age are a dime a dozen. Movies like Booksmart, however, are less so. Olivia Wilde’s feature debut is a brash, kooky story with a deep abiding love for every one of its characters.

Booksmart is, above everything else, funny. It just is. Wilde has an almost full bench of writers but miraculously the film has a singular voice. A feat that is a credit to both Wilde herself and her gaggle of writers, all women.

Stories about two teenage girls directed by a woman and written by women are so rare as they need to be cited when they occur. Like Kay Cannon’s Blockers, Booksmart takes place largely during a single night. Much like Cannon, Wilde showcases an immense affection for her characters as she allows them to ramble and argue with each other.

Granted, it helps she has two stars such as Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein. Dever plays Amy, the shy, bookish lesbian who has hearteyes for school skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). Feldstein is the much more outspoken and verbally lacerating Molly. Feldstein and Dever have effortless chemistry supported by Wilde’s judgment-free point of view.

Amy and Molly are hyper-judgmental. These are teenagers after all. But perceptions is the running theme of Booksmart. Wilde and her writers put forth a virtual smorgasbord of characters of varying archetypes. Yet, Wilde and her team never make us feel as if she’s looking down on them even when they say harsh or terrible things. She looks at them with love.

The crux of the movie is simple. Molly and Amy have each gotten into their chosen Ivy League schools. But to their horror, they discover the people who didn’t sacrifice their social life for good grades got into those same schools. In a last ditch effort to enjoy at least some of high school, Molly convinces Amy to go to Nick’s (Mason Gooding) graduation party.

It never occurs to either Molly or Amy that money or class had something to do with it. But it occurs to Wilde and her writers. Amy lives in a modest house with her doting parents Doug (Will Forte) and Charmaine (Lisa Kudrow). Molly lives in an apartment complex, her parents exiled to wherever limbo parents in the teenage coming-of-age movies are banished.

As the night goes on, Amy and Molly find themselves going from one party to another as they bounce around town like plinkos. Pay attention and you’ll notice that Molly doesn’t have a car; Amy does, but it’s a used one at that. All the other kids drive Mercedes and luxury SUVs.

While class may never be at the forefront, it is always there. Everywhere the two girls find themselves, whether it be at Jared’s (Skyler Gisondo) ocean liner or George’s (Noah Galvin) murder mystery soiree, each one far outside their home life. Nick’s party is at his aunt’s house, a sprawling palatial estate with a heated outdoor pool.

Though the characters never say so themselves, Wilde’s hints are unmistakable. For Molly and Amy, every grandiose place they go to has them gasping in awe. But places such as outside a 7-11 or the public library the two seem at home. Their postures more relaxed compared to when they are visiting these strange new worlds.

Amy and Molly are forced to take an Uber several times. At one point they discover their driver is Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis). The issues of class bubble underneath every scene of Booksmart. It can be easy to miss because we have been conditioned by Hollywood that movies can only be about one thing at a time.

The unapologetic weirdness of the film was a shock and a delight to me. Moments such as when Molly and Amy trip out and imagine they are two living dolls are both hilarious and bizarre. Especially when it seems Amy is becoming just a little too enthralled by her new doll persona.

Wilde embraces the absurd without giving into it. Gigi (Billie Lourd) is a character who, in another director’s hands, would be merely a caricature. Lourd finds a balance between the excess of Gigi and her humanity. She is a raging tempest of chaos, but if we pay attention we may find great sadness and longing.

The script by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman bounces around yet somehow makes every absurd left turn seem plausible. Less of a plot, the quartet have strung together a goofily charming road trip movie that never leaves town.

Wilde’s assurance and faith in both her script and her actors hint at a fascinating career ahead for her. Most directors will try to go big for their debut. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks and then blow up the wall to show how cool they are. Wilde instead plays it smart and subtle.

She and Jason McCormick, who shot Booksmart, combine static shots and at times almost ceaseless movement to help set the mood. In one scene, Amy and Molly have a fight. It is “the fight” that must happen in movies like these. But Wilde and McCormick know this and cut out the dialogue.

McCormick’s camera frames both Amy and Molly, full center as it sways from side to the other. The movement of the camera is opposite who is doing the yelling. We know what the two are saying because we’ve all had a fight with a friend. Plus we know Amy and Molly by this point and we know the fear and resentments each have about life after high school.

The shot exemplifies the complexity and love Wilde fearlessly explores. Throughout the film, characters we have assumed are one way reveal themselves to be another. Each time it becomes a little more heartbreaking. Our perceptions about them were based on Molly’s and Amy’s, and theirs were based on rumors.

The hurt and pain on the character’s faces when they hear what people think of them is a sobering moment that Wilde wisely never milks. Towards the end, Molly is driven home by a girl known as “Triple A” (Molly Gordon) because she is rumored to give blow jobs to boys in her car on the way home from parties. Molly is stunned to discover how much the name hurts her feelings.

Even more surprising is how the script allows Gordon’s character to acknowledge the truth of the rumors and not be sorry about it. The hurt comes from how the other girls in school treated her for merely enjoying sex. Her anger at Molly comes from what she feels like a betrayal of sisterhood.

I haven’t even broached how Wilde and her merry band of writers gracefully and beautifully handle Amy’s nervous sexual exploration. Amy’s gayness and inexperience are never the butt of jokes. She stumbles, flubs, and is allowed a hero’s happy ending.

Amy’s lesbianism isn’t used as titillating fodder. Her unease with sex comes from being a teenager. Granted it doesn’t help that the educational system woefully and willfully ignored queer sexualities in its health class.

Molly has a crush on Nick. He may be an airhead, but she can’t help but find him hot. But Molly isn’t a size zero. She is never ashamed of her body but she knows enough that boys like Nick have a type, and it’s not her. Yet, again we are stunned to see how wrong we are.

More than anything, Wilde tells a story of girls traversing girlhood without objectifying or judging them. We live in a time where earnestness is only acceptable if it is shrouded with explosions and confusing fight scenes. Booksmart wears its earnestness with fearless ease and pride.

Images courtesy of United Artists Releasing

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