SXSW 2019: BOOKSMART — This Generation’s Greatest Raunchy High School Comedy is Female

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut lives up to her name

Hilarious and heartfelt, Booksmart has arrived to provide this generation with its very best raunchy high school comedy; a film as entertaining as it is aspirational, charting a course for how we CAN have it all: raunchy, gloves off comedy and effortless diversity and cultural acceptance. Hate-free and laugh-packed, Olivia Wilde demolishes any kind of glass ceiling that may have previously existed for her career with this massively audience-friendly comedy. One also gets the sense that we’re watching a cast that is going to explode and be everywhere once this film hits mainstream.

Written and directed and starring females, Booksmart follows a classic high school movie formula but feels largely fresh due to its female perspective and characters. The glory here being, of course, that this in no way limits the potential audience for this film. Just like women have been watching movies made by and starring men since the beginning of cinema… Booksmart is a female-made film that simply WILL appeal to men and women alike. This particular lesson has been learned and re-learned over and over again by Hollywood but it still seems that every female-led film has to re-prove this argument all by itself.

Written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, the script for Booksmart is simply masterful. Does it follow a well-trodden formula? Absolutely. That formula being a couple of overachieving best friends discovering on their last day of high school that all the partying cool kids that they looked down on all got into the same prestigious schools that they got into, so now they’re going to make up for all the partying they missed out on in one crazy night. That’s right. You’ve seen this movie. But that’s just the broad strokes. It’s the flesh and blood that pumps in Booksmart that you’ve never seen before. For one thing, Booksmart is female led. But you HAVE seen that before. Bridesmaids made hundreds of millions of dollars and launched a dozen careers almost ten years ago. This is just really, really female led and in a way that feels totally effortless. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as Molly and Amy are fresh new faces who grab your attention and affection instantly. Their friendship is natural and modern. They’re absolutely inseparable best friends who’ve gotten each other through high school with sincerity. Amy’s out queerness is casual and results in zero conflict between the two friends. Her out queerness also contributes to her character without defining her character. Both friends are sexually inexperienced and vulnerable and their orientations are just a piece of the complicated puzzle of adolescence.

What really makes the script outstanding is the sheer success ratio of the jokes, gags, and set pieces as compared to the amount of genuine character growth wrung out of a crazy night of partying. In a very real way, comedies can simply be measured based on the amount of laughs they provide. Did you laugh uproariously and throughout? Then it’s probably a good comedy. Booksmart definitely had me rolling throughout with several set pieces that will live on in comedy history. But not every good comedy transcends into greatness, and it’s the writing and the characters and the lessons learned for a modern generation of teens that launches Booksmart into the stratosphere. Honestly, it’s aspirational. We still love many of our 1980s high school comedies even though they often traded in generalizations, stereotypes, or catered only to a white, middle-class experience. Our 1980s high school comedies were a product of their culture; Booksmart feels like a movie that points us to a better future that only our young people can really point us towards.

Of course our main characters have a moment of conflict. But what cattiness does exist between the wide array of female characters in Booksmart actually acts as the points of growth for our characters as they learn to push past their perceptions and see one another for the full, complicated people they all really are. Molly really does see herself as better than everyone else when we first meet her. It’s her way of coping with her low social status, but also she’s made it into a weapon to propel her to her vision of success. Over the course of one crazy night Molly learns she’s been judgmental and shallow. She learns through conflict and comedy, and it’s effortless and energetic. Amy lives in Molly’s shadow and allows her meek nature to dominate her. She isn’t as judgmental as Molly but she rolls with it because she lets Molly take the lead. Amy learns boldness and confidence as the party rages on, and while it’s a rocky road filled with car theft, drugs and alcohol, vomit, and more… Booksmart endears us to Amy and gives her an epic arc of newfound boldness and self-confidence. It’s empowering and hugely satisfying without ever feeling forced or prescribed.

It matters that Booksmart is made by females. It really does. As a for instance, there’s a hilarious moment early on in which Molly is struck in the face in glorious slow motion with a water-filled-condom. It’s beautifully shot in ultra slow motion and features as much energy and dynamism as the rest of the film does. Olivia Wilde doesn’t just direct a well-written comedy, she exhibits the style and energy and confidence of a highly experienced director. It did occur to me, however, that this particular visual was perhaps a little bit mean. Our female lead being publicly embarrassed in slow motion by a symbol of maleness? Hmm. But don’t worry, Wilde’s got you. The end credits literally feature every single cast member getting this exact same treatment with giant smiles on their faces. If Beanie/Molly had to go through it, everyone else did too. It’s hilarious, it’s good natured, and it’s egalitarian. What a small touch that says so very much.

But as important as it is that Booksmart is made by women, it’s also made FOR everyone. Okay, I guess if you’re prudish or don’t respond well to young people you’ll want to run far away from Booksmart. But this is a raunch fest that pulls no punches and gives us all hope that boundary pushing comedy need not include hate or regressive ideas to be absolutely hysterical. Wilde and these writers don’t feel like they’ve got any shackles on at all. This is a full bore gross out comedy that need not resort to any kind of hate to get you cackling. If there’s justice, Booksmart is the future of R-rated comedy coming soon to a theater near you.

And I’m Out.

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