Review: Booksmart

This American teen comedy, focusing almost exclusively on the girls’ experience, is blessed with one of the best titles of recent memory. “Booksmart” implies a brain full of stuff derived from reading materials and outside sources rather than from experience. It’s the opposite of “street smart.” Our two protagonists, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are more than just the class nerds, students who get straight As and participate in the astronomy club and school band. They’re also the class snobs in that they put on a front of not caring about what the rest of their classmates do, i.e., popularity through being hip and a willingness to party under any circumstances. Molly and Amy aren’t hip except to their own vision of adult sophistication and responsibility (they proudly flaunt their Warren for President bumber stickers), and in that regard they see themselves as better than their peers because they’ve been accepted to top-flight universities. This self-affirmation, however, is deflated when, during the final weeks of their senior year, they discover that most of those peers are also going to top-flight universities — and without having busted their assses academically the way Molly and Amy did.

To say this realization takes the wind out of their sails is an understatement. It basically negates their entire adolescence, which means they have only a weekend or two to make up for it, and they decide to debauch to their heart’s content; except, of course, they have no idea of how to debauch. The script, by director Olivia Wilde and four other women, distinguishes the two girls, BFFs if there ever were any, by temperament. Molly is an extrovert, the class president who is still asserting her prerogatives on the last day of school, while Amy suffers from a latent case of same sex attraction (not to Molly, who seems straight) that keeps her introverted when it comes to social interactions, though she’s woke enough to put down racists and dweebs when the situation calls for it. In a sense, Booksmart occasionally suffers from an abundance of riches: the dialogue is sharp and rapid-fire, the incidental music is punchy and appropriate, and the surfeit of weird high school types provides humor that doesn’t get old right away.

Booksmart is what used to be called a picaresque, only that our two rogues are essentially learning their bad manners as they go along. By that token, the humor can get pretty gross (the vomit scene and copious references to female masturbation are quite ripe), which may be why some critics have unimaginately called it the girls equivalent of Superbad (also, that movie starred Feldstein’s older brother, Jonah Hill), but it’s probably the movie’s sensitive, empirically true take on teen sex that makes Booksmart the superior movie, not to mention its generally optimistic take on the lives of young people who spend too much time in high school smoking pot and playing video games. Wilde doesn’t look down on anyone here, but rather endeavors to show that high school shouldn’t be the best or worst time of a person’s life. It simply is what it is, as one very un-booksmart person recently said.

Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Booksmart home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Annapurna Pictures LLC

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