Olivia Wilde Takes on the End-of-High-School Movie and Wins

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A review of BOOKSMART from director Olivia Wilde Review by Olivia FunderburgWhether or not the season has officially begun, I’ve decided that Booksmart is the movie of the summer. Olivia Wilde (House) sets her directorial debut at the cusp of summer—the last day of high school—which carries with it a feeling of endless possibility. Booksmart follows inseparable best friends Molly and Amy, played by Beanie Feldstein (Ladybird) and Kaitlyn Dever (Last Man Standing) respectively, as they tackle the end of senior year. Molly, student-body president and soon to be Yale first-year, has a fifteen-year plan that culminates in her becoming the youngest judge nominated to the Supreme Court. Amy, a never-been-kissed out lesbian and intersectional feminist, is unsure of her future but wants to do good: she’ll spend her post-high school summer supporting Botswanan women’s reproductive health.

As the title suggests, Molly and Amy are “booksmart.” Throughout high school, they chose homework over house parties and have Ivy League acceptances to show for it. But what happens when Molly finds out that many of their classmates have done both: had fun and gotten into top colleges? She uses her intense drive to pursue “a seminal fun anecdote” on the night before graduation. Amy would be perfectly comfortable eating their celebratory cake and staying in, but her loyalty and Molly’s calling of “Malala” (their code for “trust me on this”) leads to them sneaking out in matching blue jumpsuits to take on the night.  The two girls weave through multiple parties and multiple discoveries: about classmates, teachers, each other, and themselves.

Music helps Booksmart come alive. Hip-hop producer and classically trained violinist Dan the Automator’s score combines with a soundtrack full of feel-good artists. From rocker Alanis Morissette to rapper Anderson .Paak to R&B phenom Lizzo, the balance between the contemporary, of-the-moment radio hits and 90s music helps Wilde’s film feel like an instant classic.

Booksmart is transcendent. It’s a film that’s definitively not about me, but it’s like Olivia Wilde took a peek inside my book nerd psyche or my college friends’ group chats. As a Virginia Woolf superfan, I nearly screamed when I saw that Amy’s bedroom is proudly labeled “A Room of One’s Own.” Molly and Amy are so inseperable that some people (namely Amy’s parents) assume they’re dating. Wilde’s film is centered around diverse young people. Amy is a lesbian, out far before the film begins, and Booksmart normalizes this queer teen’s crush as involving the same exact anxieties as any other teen’s. Playful class vice president Nick (Mason Gooding) is a teen of color and the bane of Molly’s existence, but his race doesn’t relegate him to background character or kid from the bad neighborhood. The young ensemble cast boasts an easy chemistry that makes you want to be their friend and live forever in their carefree night.

More importantly, Booksmart takes its presumed genre and gives it an innovative jolt. In one scene, when the girls finally arrive at the Gatsby-level party of legend at Nick’s aunt’s house, Molly and Nick gracefully waltz together in an imagined musical scene, à la La La Land. When Molly and Amy accidentally take hallucinogens, Wilde imagines their trip in a stop-motion animated sequence of the girls as plastic Barbie-esque dolls. Throughout the movie, their sparkly, effervescent classmate Gigi (Billie Lourd) impossibly arrives at Molly and Amy’s destinations before they get there, like a fairy godmother of sorts.

Political and social commentary, or better yet, political and social awareness, are threaded organically throughout Wilde’s film. Amy emphatically explains the difference between gender expression and sexual orientation in the film’s introductory minutes, as Molly assumes skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) must be gay because of how she dresses. The two friends note that seemingly confident but secretly insecure Jared (Skyler Gisondo) has invented a party theme with questionable undertones, and he corrects himself, encouraging the girls, “Prepare to get consensually bashed.” When classmate Annabelle (Molly Gordon) comes to Molly’s rescue at the peak of her distress, Annabelle firmly takes down the sexist nickname that has followed her through high school. In the subtext of her comedy, Wilde reminds us that today’s teens are more intuitive and open-minded than we might assume.

In certain moments, though, Booksmart escapes complexity and the grittiness of nuance in favor of simplicity. Molly and Amy exist in a bubble where everyone goes to college after high school. Affordability and financial aid are never discussed. The viewer is privy to the contrast between Molly’s apartment with an absent mother, and Amy’s two present parents in a brick house. With her subtle genre-bending, Wilde chooses to move from complete realism to a place that requires slight suspension of disbelief. Yes, Booksmart gets at the real lives of today’s teens, but it also chooses to exaggerate or exclude in favor of focusing on the sheer amount of feeling that the teens undergo on this transformative night. They want to do everything and be anything.

I’ve yet to figure out exactly why people continue coming back to high school narratives enough for a film like Booksmart to be successful. But I think Booksmart is successful because it’s not a typical high school movie, romcom or otherwise. It’s no High School Musical or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, saturated with a wholesome earnestness, and it’s not quite Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, driven by suburban restlessness. It lacks the petty drama of Mean Girls. The film’s R rating alone sets Booksmart apart from these predecessors. Wilde’s movie is made for a distinctly adult (or older teen) audience that will be drawn in by Molly and Amy’s insecurities and the strength of their friendship. These are feelings that we know and relationships that we lean on while we figure out who we are.

Perhaps people return to high school movies because, for all the complaints that high school was terrible, those teenage years are a period of unique self-discovery and burgeoning independence. And Booksmart in particular, set at the precipice between high school and college, balancing in a sort of liminal space between adolescence and real-life, is successful because Olivia Wilde draws together questions and transformation into one beautiful night. She gives us a limited and focused glimpse into Molly and Amy’s very specific world. The specificity grounds their story, and the details make it feel real.




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About Author

Olivia Funderburg studied English and Education Studies at Wellesley College, and now works in children’s publishing in New York City. In her free time, she can be found talking about educational inequality, keeping tabs on Lebron James, and searching bookstore shelves for the next great teen romcom.

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