June 17, 2019

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Old tropes, new tricks

Coming-of-age comedy turns stereotypes inside out to charm and entertain

Warning: the following film contains obscenity, sexual situations, underage drinking and drug use.

Oh, and it also contains staunch feminism, supportive friends, hilarity and heartbreak.

Booksmart has all the staples of the raunchy high school movie — a wild pool party, a valedictorian speech, bullies who learn their lesson, unrequited crushes and underdogs who find romance with the right person — but this refreshing generation-Z comedy turns most of the stereotypes inside out while delivering snort-worthy laughs and a there-till-the-end friendship that’s utterly endearing.

Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever are Molly and Amy, BFFs and academic grinds about to graduate from their Los Angeles high school. They’re joined at the hip, though student-council president Molly is the bulldozer who makes the plans.

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Warning: the following film contains obscenity, sexual situations, underage drinking and drug use.

Oh, and it also contains staunch feminism, supportive friends, hilarity and heartbreak.

Booksmart has all the staples of the raunchy high school movie — a wild pool party, a valedictorian speech, bullies who learn their lesson, unrequited crushes and underdogs who find romance with the right person — but this refreshing generation-Z comedy turns most of the stereotypes inside out while delivering snort-worthy laughs and a there-till-the-end friendship that’s utterly endearing.

Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever are Molly and Amy, BFFs and academic grinds about to graduate from their Los Angeles high school. They’re joined at the hip, though student-council president Molly is the bulldozer who makes the plans.

Amy came out in Grade 10 (her sexuality is neither fetishized nor made a point of); her Christian parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, wonderful in too-small roles) are lovingly supportive if less than desirous of the details, although she has yet to even kiss a girl.

The two are devoted to each other, pumping each other up and sharing even the most intimate secrets.

However, after years of spending every minute concentrating on her studies, Molly is stunned to discover — in a scene that’s a jaw-dropper of reversed expectations — that their classmates have also managed to achieve success while having some fun.

She determines the two must cram all their teen experiences into the night before graduation. Molly just wants to have one wild story to tell at Yale when she’s talking about her high school days, and she wants Amy to hook up with her crush, Ryan, a cool skateboarder.

In Booksmart, Beanie Feldstein (left) and Kaitlyn Dever play best friends and academic overachievers Molly and Amy, who are determined to make up for lost time by cramming all their teen experiences into the night before grad. (Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures)

In Booksmart, Beanie Feldstein (left) and Kaitlyn Dever play best friends and academic overachievers Molly and Amy, who are determined to make up for lost time by cramming all their teen experiences into the night before grad. (Francois Duhamel / Annapurna Pictures)

The film is the directorial debut of actor Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, House) and she handles the balance between broad, sometimes vulgar comedy and more character-driven moments beautifully, even as they’re occurring at the same time. In this, she’s helped greatly by her stars, whose patter and physicality feel totally in sync.

Feldstein (younger sister of Jonah Hill) is a total force. Her Molly is like Gilmore Girls’ Paris Geller, a smart, self-assured person who has to be in control at all times and sometimes doesn’t realize how off-putting she can be. Dever (so great on Justified) has the less showy role, but her vulnerable side is a nice counter to Feldstein’s chutzpah.

The idea of giving tired tropes a little twist is familiar territory for Katie Silberman, one of the team of four women who penned the script. She co-wrote this year’s similarly successful Isn’t It Romantic, a semi-spoof of rom-coms that poked fun at the conventions of the genre while revelling in its pleasures.

Booksmart isn’t a parody, however, but a much-needed update, placing the teen comedy squarely in the relatively realistic here and now and up-ending the spent stereotypes. When debating whether Ryan is gay, Molly mentions the fact she wore a polo shirt to prom as proof she’s a lesbian. "That’s her gender performance, not her sexuality," Amy says. Like, obvs.

The students Molly and Amy have crushes on aren’t model-beautiful, unreachable types who look 30 (Victoria Ruesga, who plays Ryan, is actually a skateboarder). They’re not mean or supercilious or aloof, just oblivious. And, unlike in so many movies set in high school, the brainy kids are not automatically understood to be better people; Molly can be a real mean girl.

Though they’re both super-studious overachievers, that doesn’t also mean Molly and Amy are undesirable nerds, just waiting for the right guy to remove their glasses (neither of them require corrective eyewear) and reveal their true beauty. They’re confident girls with a sense of their own style who have intentionally placed themselves outside of the group, rather than being ostracized. (One of Molly’s classmates tells friends he’d totally have sex with her, if he could "put a bag over her personality.")

Booksmart isn’t without its problems. Some of the secondary characters feel amorphous and vague: though Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) is adorable as rich kid Jared, more background into his desperate-to-please personality would be welcome. The same goes for Billie Lourd, hilarious but a bit confusing as the out-there Gigi.

But the very fact that the viewer wants background on these people speaks to how invested we are in Molly and Amy, how nice it is to see women who hold each other up and try not to hold each other back.

Warning: this film contains scenes that may make some viewers a little misty-eyed.

jill.wilson@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @dedaumier

Jill Wilson

Jill Wilson
Senior copy editor

Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.

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