Booksmart” has a lot going for it. It’s the centerpiece high school comedy of 2019, and it represents modern times well despite fitting firmly into the genre. But perhaps we use the word “comedy” too automatically in stories about high school graduation and teenage romance, because “Booksmart” isn’t all that funny. Really, this film is about best friends – Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, who resembles Robin Tunney at that age) and Molly (Jonah Hill’s sister Beanie Feldstein) – and that part is fine. But director Olivia Wilde’s debut never connects on a big or gut-busting moment. It’s too low-key and casual, regardless of what genre label we put on it.
The most egregious misfire is that a pivotal moment in Amy’s arc – when she rises from meek to brave in order to distract cops at a party – is absent. Editor Jamie Gross was in a no-win situation, because the four-writer screenplay has nothing to offer here.
As we see in the deleted scene bonus feature, Amy acts goofy around the cops to distract them; it’s a bad scene that even Robin Williams or Jim Carrey couldn’t save, let alone Dever. But “Booksmart” should not have gone to its final print until the writers, director and actor came up with something good for this moment.
On the other hand, the film does have a few moments that approach poignancy. At the party, Amy jumps into a pool along with her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). The dreamy music and shots of a finally happy Amy gliding along underwater — elements that lead us to expect a sweet encounter (the pool scene from “Garden State” comes to my mind) — give way to a truly heartbreaking reveal.
Amy sees Ryan kissing a guy. It turns out Ryan wasn’t into Amy; she was just being nice to her, because she’s a nice person. This makes it more gut-wrenching, because Amy can’t even rationalize it and say Ryan’s a nasty person. Nothing makes you feel lower than being rejected by someone who likes everyone.
There’s also the fact of Ryan’s sexual orientation, which Amy hoped cut in her favor. And this is where the modernity of “Booksmart” shines through. It’s a high school movie that dodges a lot of the old stereotypes. I’m not sure if this reflects the real world or if the film is pointing the way for the real world, but it’s nice to see something different.
Everyone’s unquestioning acceptance of gay students is the least of it. Everyone is fine with everyone else in terms of the categories they fall into; students at this school judge people on the content of their character and behavior.
Molly is a case in point. She is a social outsider, but it’s not because she’s considered chunky or unfashionable. It’s because she’s so intensely focused on schoolwork and her senior class presidency that she shuts out everyone except Amy. Molly overhears students talking about her in the gender-neutral bathroom – again, it’s 2019 – and they think she’s cute, but that she’s a butter-personality (as in “She’s cute … but her personality”). In older movies, she’d be an outcast for being unattractive.
“Booksmart’s” against-stereotype casting sometimes goes too far, as people who don’t seem to have chemistry hook up, and everyone – including those who blew off school and partied all the time — is on their way to Harvard or Yale or Stanford or Georgetown or a Google programming gig that pays $500K.
I like the idea of the film – that two girls were so focused on school that they forgot to have fun, and they try to make up for it in one crazy night before graduation. A closing moment between the best friends clicks because the Amy-Molly friendship is the one thing this film is (rightly) confident in. But this should’ve been a pleasant comedown from the hilarious antics of the first 90 minutes.
Those laughs aren’t there. We get some boring and unfunny sequences, notably the girls trying to look threatening by pulling their long hair over their faces to get information from a pizza guy about a party’s location. This made it into the trailer, which should give you an idea of what the trailer editor had to pull from.
And it’s decidedly safe, another modern trait. A student-teacher relationship includes the (relatively young) teacher making sure that the student (who has been held back multiple times) is 20 years old. It’s a female teacher and male student, which is less controversial than the opposite gender pairing. By checking the “play it safe” box, the filmmakers also eliminate the shock humor that such an arc should ideally provide.
There was potential for something good here, and as a generous grader, I’m not going to give it a failing mark. “Booksmart” gets an incomplete.