Film

A refreshing and often groundbreaking portrayal of female adolescence, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart deserves to be a classic, despite its slow start at the box office. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.

Booksmart

Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever and Jessica Williams in 'Booksmart'.
Credit: Annapurna Pictures

Two straitlaced nerds have just accidentally taken drugs. The pair thought they were eating regular strawberries – at a fellow dorky student’s scantly attended boat party – but the fruit has in fact been laced with narcotics. The realisation sets in as they sit at a melodramatic murder mystery dinner, when suddenly they transform into Barbie dolls wearing sexy costumes and begin to lose their minds.

“These proportions are insane!” one of the girls screams, looking down at her thin plastic body. “Where is my chub?” Soon enough, the high-as-a-kite friends are pulled back into the madness of reality, racing to yet another party. Neither is sure what’s real and what’s not, including their own bodies; to onlookers, though, they just look like two wasted girls moving in slow motion.

Welcome to the wild world of Booksmart: actress Olivia Wilde’s irreverent, subversive directorial debut. Touted as the female Superbad, with a razor-sharp script penned by four women, the comedy follows Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), two overachievers who realise that while they were ditching parties for study, the cool kids managed to do both and still get admitted into Ivy League schools – a neat subversion of stereotypical tropes. So, Molly and Amy decide to reinvent themselves through that most all-American rite of passage – cramming all of high school into one night of partying.

From Dazed and Confused to Can’t Hardly Wait, the technique of setting a film over one night of debauchery before the end of high school has long provided a convenient summary of the teenage experience, packing in the action that comes before the responsibilities of adulthood. Such stories have most often followed the exploits of boys, with young women shown as conquests, sidekicks or obstacles – so, largely by virtue of its protagonists, Booksmart doesn’t feel clichéd, despite its familiar narrative arc.

The film was widely expected to make a splash at the box office. In March, it debuted at South by Southwest to rave reviews and projections suggested it would gross $12 million over its four-day opening weekend. All the right ingredients were there – strong female protagonists, sex positivity, the quintessential coming-of-age narrative and breathless endorsements from celebrities and film Twitter.

Yet Booksmart has struggled commercially. Perhaps this was due to the lack of star power, its small marketing budget, or the film’s instant nationwide release rather than beginning with a limited release and letting the buzz build – a risky move for an indie, as even Wilde conceded – all the while competing with blockbusters such as Aladdin. The film pulled in just $8.7 million in ticket sales over its first four days.

Compare this with the box office success of another recent small-budget film about a teenage girl, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which did receive a limited initial release; or one of Netflix’s biggest hits, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before; or the perennially quotable Mean Girls, held up as a classic of the genre, 15 years after its release. These films connected with huge audiences – something Booksmart appears to be failing to do, at least commercially.

And yet there is a normalcy about this film that feels quite remarkable. This leading pair is not the Hollywood standard – one is queer, one plus-sized. These are presented as facts, not hindrances to overcome. And while 2018’s Love, Simon was actively marketed as an LGBTQIA teen film and focused on the mechanics of coming out, Booksmart’s Amy has been out for two years, with religious parents who are bemused but encouraging. “It’s surprising that Doug and Charmaine are supportive, considering their whole Jesus thing,” says Molly. To see a teenager confident of their sexuality is refreshing, rather than yet another rehash of the narrative of struggle, with its undertone of tragedy, which has for so long dictated the telling of queer stories.

Despite social progress, female teenage sexuality often still feels fraught on screen, more often depicted mentally than explicitly physical. In 2018, Blockers unapologetically gender-flipped the standard storyline about virginity-losing pacts – and Booksmart doesn’t shy away from taboos, either, with frank discussions about masturbation, curious explorations of pornography and a queer sex scene that takes a graphic turn. It’s raunchy and funny but never condescending, granting its characters a sense of respect while they navigate this new terrain. Importantly, while both characters have crushes they pursue, their priority is always shown to be each other. The storyline strikes a critical balance between romantic and platonic spheres, challenging heteronormative concepts of love as well as perceptions of the emotional depths of teenage girls.

The popularisation of teenage feminism is evident here – bedroom walls and cars are plastered with Michelle Obama pictures and pro-choice slogans, Molly and Amy use “Malala” as a code word to support each other’s decisions and Amy plans to spend a gap year in Botswana making tampons. There’s a running gag throughout the film wherein the girls dramatically compliment each other in a way that seems over the top but speaks to a feminist solidarity that rebuffs patriarchal notions of competition between girls and defies social expectation.

Feminism has been tackled by teen films in the past – 2010’s Easy A is still a blistering watch and 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You had a surly, Plath-reading teen at its centre – but Booksmart normalises its politics by showing them as incidental. Through its politically active protagonists, the film acknowledges that young women can at once know themselves and their world intimately, while still having more to learn, which will come with experience.

Charting female adolescence has so often been a serious affair – Bo Burnham’s recent Eighth Grade takes this approach effectively – but the reality is that female coming of age is as often funny as it is emotional. The best of this new class of cinema presents young women on a spectrum, allowing today’s girls to see themselves represented on screen in a way that feels less suffocating. It permits – even invites – them to make mistakes that won’t define who they are for the rest of their lives.

By removing the male gaze and mixing in the critical ingredient of lived experience, Booksmart presents its audience with a more authentic view of what it means to come of age as a young woman in the Western world. The growing trend of these stories being written by women plays no small part in this cultural shift. Of course, for all the progress, these stories remain largely white.

Booksmart offers a question-mark conclusion, a particularly wonderful choice that acknowledges the realistic uncertainty of a burgeoning adult’s future. At 17 or 18, these young people are only just becoming who they are – it’s likely things will remain messy as they navigate careers, relationships and everything after the fade to black. With its early box office stumbles, the film itself faces an undetermined future. But coming as it has at a time when there is a real hunger for stories that make young women agents in their own destinies, many still think it could become a sleeper hit.

One of the defining teen coming-of-age stories of the ’90s, Paul Feig’s television show Freaks and Geeks, was cancelled after only one season. It not only went on to achieve cult status for its perfect crystallisation of the disaffected teen zeitgeist, but it also launched the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. The numbers aren’t everything – and my guess is that with help from word-of-mouth praise, Booksmart and its stars will be spoken of with similar regard in years to come.

 

Arts Diary

LITERATURE Mildura Writers Festival

Venues throughout Mildura, July 18-21

THEATRE My Urrwai

QPAC, Brisbane, July 17-22

MUSIC Gondwana World Choral Festival

Venues throughout Sydney , July 15-21

VISUAL ART William Kentridge: That Which We Do Not Remember

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until September 8

THEATRE A Room of One’s Own

Fortyfivedownstairs , Melbourne, July 17-28

MUSIC Spin Off Festival

Adelaide Showgrounds, July 19

THEATRE The Torrents

Drama Theatre, Sydney, July 18—August 24

THEATRE Pomona

Red Stitch, Melbourne, July 14—August 11

MULTIMEDIA Spectra: The Art and Consequence of Collaboration

UTS Gallery, Sydney, July 16–September 6

WEB SERIES Melbourne WebFest

RMIT University, Melbourne, July 18-21

Last chance

VISUAL ART Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits

Bendigo Art Gallery, until July 14

INSTALLATION Katena – Architects of Air

Carine Regional Open Space, Perth, until July 14

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Happily clever after". Subscribe here.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
is a Vietnamese–Australian writer based in Melbourne.