review

SXSW Review: Booksmart

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Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), the protagonists of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart, love each other. That much is clear. From scene to scene, they are constantly complimenting each other and hyping each other up all while looking deeply into each other’s eyes. It’s rare to see two teenage girls love each other so openly and completely onscreen and I can’t wait to see more of it. Booksmart is a true gal pal love story–a post-Mean Girls film (much like last year’s Blockers) boasting a cast of funny, understandably messy teenage girls who resist slipping into caricature with honest, nuanced performances.

Booksmart is the kind of teen film I needed when I was younger. Like many 90s kids, I grew up idolizing John Hughes, mythologizing him as the bard of cinematic teenhood. But despite the fantastic work of Molly Ringwald, whose performances shifted the portrayals of teen girls for years to come, there was always something that stopped me just short of relating to her characters. Juxtaposed against tall leggy blondes and the more commercial femininity of the 90s, Ringwald had an unconventional look. But compared to me—a chubby black girl with a round face and bookish nature—she was much closer to the ideal, and most of her romantic triumphs were far beyond anything I had ever experienced at that age.

The teen films of the 80s made way for the coming-of-age boom of the 90s, and that’s a train that continues to barrel through recent cinema culture with no signs of stopping. And with the recent success of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Kay Cannon’s Blockers, female coming-of-age narratives have made their way back into style. Gerwig, Cannon and now Wilde have all made their directorial debuts with loving, hilarious stories about teenage girls on the brink of adulthood. Booksmart, which co-stars Lady Bird’s Beanie Feldstein, is a joyous addition to the teen film canon.

On their last day of high school, best friends Molly and Amy realize that they dedicated all their time to schoolwork, forgoing parties, after-school activities and making new friends. On their quest for excellence, they forgot to get to know their fellow classmates, missing opportunities to get to know themselves in the process. Molly takes the lead on rectifying by insisting they both go to a cartoonishly massive house party (which houses both of their respective crushes).

The party they seek is the kind of extravagant high school party that always occurs in teen movies, but the setting feels fresh in Booksmart because it’s literally a stand-in for four years worth of fun times and fucking up. Molly and Amy are both overachievers, but as the story goes on it becomes more apparent that Amy fell into the role of yes woman to placate her friend. Molly is convinced that she and Amy have to make up for lost time before college, putting her type-A nature into overdrive by dragging Amy deeper into the night whether she wants to or not.

The only thing drawing Amy to the party is an opportunity to see her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). The queer narrative is a standout in the film, surpassing a similar narrative in Blockers by having Amy already out of the closet instead of spending the runtime drawing her out. Amy knows she’s attracted to women, but never gave herself the time or space to act on it. Dever is endlessly charming as Amy, deftly handling a quiet and complex emotional arc.

Though supportive in her friend’s love life, Molly is much more repressed, unable to admit her attraction to popular jock Nick (Mason Gooding) until the absolute last minute. Feldstein comes into her own as an actress with Molly, flexing comedic chops only hinted at in Lady Bird. Here, she’s the star of the show, exuding confidence and a magnetic personality. Molly breaks the Tracy Flick mold of humorless, socially rigid overachievers, revealing a playful, funny, sexually open bookworm.

Walking out of Booksmart, I knew two things: Beanie Feldstein is going to be a star, and Booksmart has effortlessly earned its place in the classic teen film canon. I can’t wait to watch it again.

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