As I’ve made abundantly clear on this blog over the past year-plus, I am not in favor of rebooting or remaking established movie franchises with gender-swapped leads in general, mostly because there’s rarely any reason for it beyond, “Hey, let’s do it with LADIES this time!” In most cases the entire gimmick is little more than a cynical move by studios to pretend they care about representation while making a quick buck off of people looking only at the cast and not worrying about a coherent plot or character motivations.
However, every once in a while, the usage is warranted, and can turn into a great movie-going experience, because in the right hands, you can switch the demographics of the cast and still have a good story. Such is the case with Booksmart, the directorial debut of acclaimed actress Olivia Wilde. On the surface, it’s just another teen party comedy in the vein of something like Superbad, only with Kaitlyn Dever (from TV’s Last Man Standing) and Beanie Feldstein (Saoirse Ronan’s best friend in Lady Bird) filling in for Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, respectively (especially poignant as Jonah Hill is Feldstein’s real-life older brother). But thanks to a deft cinematic touch from Wilde, and an extremely relatable and empathetic script, the film stakes its claim to being one of the most funny and heartfelt films of the summer.
Set on the last day before graduation, brainy best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) congratulate themselves on placing top two in their class, their years of hard work having finally paid off. Amy is about to spend a month in Africa before the two head off to Ivy League schools (Columbia for Amy, Yale for Molly). They have regrets, like never really partying with their classmates and in Amy’s case, never approaching a girl she likes (she’s been out of the closet for two years now, and her parents – Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte – overcompensate in their support), but they’re happy, because they’ll be running the world soon while all of their slacker, party hearty classmates will be failures.
Except, that’s not how the world works. After a confrontation in the school’s co-ed bathrooms (’cause Pasadena is super woke, y’all!), Molly learns that the same popular jock kids have also got bright futures despite their lackadaisical tendencies. One is about to accept a soccer scholarship at Stanford. A girl dubbed “AAA” (Molly Gordon) because she gives “roadside assistance” to all the guys also got into Yale. The dumbest of the jocks, who repeated 7th grade twice, got recruited to code for Google. Even Nick (Mason Gooding), the lazy VP to Molly’s class President (and subject of an unrequited crush) is playing it cool all the way to Georgetown in the fall.
This creates an understandable existential crisis for Molly. She and Amy did everything right and got what they wanted, but so did everyone else who allowed themselves to have fun on top of their studies. In Molly’s mind, their high school years have been wasted, and so she convinces Amy that they’re going to go party at Nick’s house that night, to get one taste of high school social life before college.
Right from the off, the combination of Wilde’s direction and the script by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman gets you invested in the story for two big reasons. First and foremost, the chemistry between Amy and Molly is note perfect. Their rapport is instantly believable and relatable, thanks to their feminist commitment and their devotion to each other. The relationship is so strong that one can invoke a modern feminist icon as a means of convincing the other. No better is this exemplified than by calling, “Malala,” in reference to Malala Yousofzai (who persevered for girls’ rights to education even after being shot by the Taliban; she later won the Nobel Peace Prize) as a means of making a request that can’t be denied. The connection these two share is something truly special, and should remind just about everyone in the audience of their childhood best friends (it sure did for me). Sadly, this makes the more clichéd conflicts over the course of the film detract from the proceedings more than they normally would, but at least in the setup, it’s the perfect hook.
This is a large part of why this film rises above the tired “Let’s do it with the ladies” trope of modern remakes. This isn’t a female take on teen movies like American Pie and Superbad. It’s just a good teen movie that happens to star two young women, and who offer that heretofore untapped resource of a teenage girl’s perspective outside of being the object of sexual desire/conquest. Again, this is why movies like Ocean’s 8 suck. Start with a good story, then cast it appropriately, rather than just say, “It’s Ladies’ Night,” and then throw a bunch of crap against the wall once you’ve filled out your cast with a bunch of stereotypes and one-note joke characters. Those movies fail because to the studios it mattered more that the cast be women more than being believable women.
The other big draw is the supporting cast, because this high school is just absurd. Never mind co-ed bathrooms, you have over-the-top, barely controlled classrooms where the dramatic gay couple commandeers the first period to pitch their Shakespeare adaptations. Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) is exhausted with the students during the day, and trying to relate to them as a Lyft driver at night (including a Cardi B joke that I totally called in advance). Students literally throw condom water balloons in the hallways (best we had in my high school was water pistols on “Senior Day,” which were banned in my senior year, grumble). Molly and Amy’s teacher, Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams), is a lover of crossword puzzles and misses her youth, seemingly having more in common with the students than their parents. Diana Silvers from Ma and Glass plays a typical mean girl model who happens to nail just about everyone’s foibles.
But the absolute gem of the bunch is Gigi, played by Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher. The eccentric girlfriend of the school’s most spoiled kid, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), Lourd carries Gigi like a free-spirited version of Kate Hudson (only with, you know, talent), taking and giving out all manner of drugs, sage advice, and good feelings as she inexplicably pops up at every single location Amy and Molly travel to on their quest for the party. She steals every single scene she’s in, highlighting the utter nonsensical nature of this student body as well as everyone’s respective hangups. If Molly and Amy are Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, then Billie Lourd as Gigi is clearly the McLovin of the group.
The journey of the evening to find Nick’s party is both fun and funny (especially when the girls get advice on how not to get murdered by a pizza delivery boy played by A.P. Bio creator Mike O’Brien), though I’ll admit it hit a bit too close to home for me. When Amy and Molly finally arrive, everyone learns that the pair is actually quite fun to be around, and while manufactured romantic drama exists, the evening is on the whole positive for them. Where it pains me is in the focal point of the “blame” for Amy and Molly’s social situation. Potential love interest Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) tells Amy that she wishes she had come out sooner, but it’s noted often that Amy and Molly have never been invited out (half the humor of the journey is trying to find the address because no one will give it to them for various reasons). Once they show up, everyone is happy to see them and have fun with them, but it’s held against them that they themselves were never invited out.
I felt that isolation myself in high school. Having moved from another state prior to my freshman year, I really had no enemies in high school (I had a ton of bullies in elementary and middle school before the move), but apart from my small circle of friends, I wasn’t particularly social, and I certainly never went to what mass media would have you believe is a “typical” high school party (we hung out at the local Moose lodge and had monthly dances, but they were HEAVILY supervised). I learned after graduation that nobody had any problems with me, but I was never invited out to the popular kids’ house parties because they thought I’d be too much of a “downer,” that I’d narc on everyone, which wasn’t true. I probably wouldn’t have drank (I waited until I was 18 and in college, which I believe should be the legal standard), and I certainly wouldn’t have smoked cigarettes, but I wouldn’t have judged the others for doing so, and I’d have pretty much been down for every other bit of experimenting, and if romantic entanglements (temporary or long term) were to blossom, so much the better. I’ve always felt that I missed out on something by not being involved in that, and years later knowing that a misplaced perception prevented it is one of the few regrets of my life.
That feeling permeates a lot of the action in the movie, but I won’t really dock it too much because of it, as this is more a personal issue with me than an actual flaw of the film, apart from the melodrama that the core problem causes. Amy and Molly see their crushes crush them, but that’s a curveball they’d have seen coming if they had ever been invited out in the first place. It’s unreasonable to think you’re going to hook up with your crush the very first time you hang out with them, but Amy and Molly have no way of knowing that, because fun as they are, they’ve been shut out, even though their classmates are – for the most part – well-meaning, nice kids who just like to have a good time. Because of that, the emotional devastation rings hollow. It’s not a huge mark against the movie, even though I’ve spent three paragraphs on it, but it does bear mentioning. Olivia Wilde and the writing team get a LOT of things about the teenage experience right, but this was something of a blind spot.
There are two other main problems I had with the movie, one intentional, the other probably not. The intentional bad choice is in the music. Composed – such as it is – by “Dan the Automator,” the soundtrack is way too full of bad EDM and rap music, paired with way too many shots of Amy and Molly walking slow in the whole “I’m a BOSS!” cliché. It’s hard to feel empathy for some of these characters when they constantly march around to omnipotent lyrics like, “FUCK YOU, I GOT MONEY! FUCK YOU, I GOT MONEY!” That’s one track by someone, or something, called Leikeli47, which sounds more like a Twitter handle than a stage name, and just left me trying to yell back, “FUCK YOU, YOU CAN’T RAP! FUCK YOU, YOU CAN’T RAP!” My ears felt violated many a time. I know I’m just some grandpa who doesn’t know what the kids listen to anymore (high school was literally half my life ago), but that doesn’t excuse aural molestation.
The second, more accidental flaw, is one of timing. This mostly fun school lacks a bit of reality when it comes to the success of its student body. While it serves as a nice inciting incident for the plot to unfold, it is extremely unlikely that all these kids would be going to top tier colleges, especially on the east coast, given that this school is in Pasadena, CA. Sadly, there is a lot of wealth and privilege on display in this movie. Jared rents a yacht for a party no one attends. The house where Nick hosts his party (his aunt’s house), is freaking huge. Literally the only person not rich in this movie is the principal. While the cast of teenagers is racially and sexually diverse, it’s still glaring enough that you can basically call white privilege on the whole proceeding. And given recent events with parents literally bribing their kids’ ways into big name schools, it seems much more likely that something like this is going on than the school “slut” also getting a 1560 on her SATs. Again, I’m sure that wasn’t intentional, but in the current climate, it feels a bit tone deaf.
All that said, this movie is utterly hilarious, and a tremendous amount of fun. The cast is very strong, the writing superb, and Olivia Wilde does a very admirable job in her first feature behind the camera. Will it go down as one of the great comedies of all time? Probably not. But if nothing else, this film succeeds where so many gender swap films have not only failed, but felt cheap and unnecessary. Here we got a new spin on a classic plot device, and the world was introduced to a slew of young talent.
Not bad for your first wild night.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How much did you party in high school? What women’s historical icon would you invoke to get your friends to do your bidding? Let me know!