“Booksmart” Has A Blind Spot When It Comes To Class
Olivia Wilde's girl-centric Gen Z comedy is gloriously frank when it comes to sexuality and substances, but it’s less interested in its own class tensions.
Molly, the incredibly driven teenager played by Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart, has photos of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama plastered on the walls of her room. She wears a blazer to class. She psychs herself up with serenely profane motivational tapes voiced by Maya Rudolph that inform her to "Stand atop the mountain of your success and look down at everyone's who's ever doubted you — fuck those losers. Fuck them in their stupid fucking faces." Molly’s compulsively responsible, but she's also a high school senior who has probably only recently crossed the line of legal adulthood, and it's unlikely she lives alone.
But we never see Molly's parents, or whoever it is who watches over her. Booksmart kicks off with her morning meditation and later returns her to the salmon-colored apartment complex, where no one appears to be around to notice that she's been out all night. While her best friend Amy's (Kaitlyn Dever) mom and dad are shown hovering over a themed meal they made to celebrate their daughter's commencement, Molly's rhythms are those of a latchkey kid who's been entrusted with getting herself to school and to sleep on her own. There's a gap between Molly's life and what we see of her classmates, who all seem to have access to cars and live in houses and occupy income brackets ranging from middle class to ostentatious wealth. But that gap is never mentioned out loud, which seems like a sizable omission in a movie that's otherwise gratifyingly open — about sex, substances, and the stresses that can build up in a super-close friendship.
Booksmart is Olivia Wilde's directorial debut, an exuberantly R-rated romp about how goody-goodies Molly and Amy attempt to shed their try-hard reputations over the course of the evening before their graduation ceremony. It's a Gen Z love letter set in a teen milieu that's more casually diverse than big-screen high schools ever used to be (Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr., plays the class heartthrob; Amy is openly lesbian, and her angst arises from her shyness, not her sexuality).
The movie is generous in exploring how high school may have become a kinder, more progressive place in some ways and not changed at all in others. But there's one area where it doesn't feel of the moment, and that's when it comes to acknowledging its underlying class dynamics, and how much privilege can impact what gets interpreted as intelligence, or achievement (or make up for the lack of it).
The twist, in Booksmart, is that Molly and Amy are two hopeless nerds who've labored mightily over the last four years at their San Fernando Valley high school to get themselves into top-tier colleges (Yale and Columbia, respectively). Then they discover, on the final day of class, that all of their harder-partying classmates are off to equally prestigious destinations like Georgetown and Stanford, without seeming to have put in anywhere near the same effort. That revelation sends the duo off on the wild evening that's the real point of the movie, where they prove they're just as capable of overachieving at cutting loose as overachieving at anything else, and realize that maybe they've gotten everyone wrong.
A high test score is hardly enough to guarantee entry into an Ivy these days.
In Wilde’s view, "My movie is about two girls who’ve grown up in the Valley and they assume, incorrectly, that they need to get out of there to find smart people," she told the Los Angeles Daily News. But Booksmart doesn't lean into the sort of insufferable East Coast yearnings that Saoirse Ronan channeled so marvelously in 2017’s Lady Bird, a movie that also happened to star Feldstein, and that's much more upfront about the financial realities of its characters. ("I want to go where culture is, like New York!” Lady Bird moans.) Molly's determination comes across as more about proving herself to her classmates than about getting out of LA. Like a lot of type A teens, she's sacrificed the personal on the pyre of academics, counting on college to be where her life will really begin — so there's an element of spite there as well.
But smarts are only part of what gets someone into college, especially now that higher ed admissions have gotten absurdly, nightmarishly competitive. At the center of the misguided anti–affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard is a Chinese American student who aced the ACT and SAT, had a GPA of 4.67, played the piano, and did speech and debate (just like Molly!) — and who still did not get into his Ivies of choice. When Amy and Molly's classmates unveil the array of exclusive destinations they've apparently glided into, it doesn't feel like the real takeaway is that they’ve been misjudged by the two girls. It feels like they're revealing themselves to have advantages that the main characters never dreamed of — whether it's money, connections, or both.
When Annabelle (Molly Gordon), a character whose reputation for roadside hookups earned her the nickname "Triple A," informs Molly that she too is headed to Yale in the fall, she adds, "I'm incredible at handjobs, but I got a 1560 on the SATs." It's a funny line, and it sets up what will later be a poignant conversation about slut-shaming and how girls, even avowed "nasty woman" feminists, can be complicit in enforcing patriarchal norms. But what Annabelle says lingers for other reasons as well — because a high test score is hardly enough to guarantee entry into an Ivy these days. Was one of her parents also an alum?
Booksmart is based on a script that's been bouncing around the industry for a decade — initially scripted by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, it was reworked in 2014 by Susanna Fogel, and then rewritten again in 2018 by Katie Silberman of Set It Up. Somewhere in that stretch, it morphed from being a film about graduating seniors searching for boyfriends before prom into something more subversive and salty-sweet — a story about besties who grew up in a more open-minded, empowered world while still facing a lot of the standard-issue teen dilemmas, among them the tendency to slap simplistic labels on people. But despite those rounds of refreshes, the movie's blithe treatment of the college acceptance grind feels startlingly out of step with the national conversations we've been having about higher ed more recently. The fact that a bunch of moneyed Californians recently went down for attempting to bribe their mostly oblivious offspring into name-brand colleges only throws that into starker relief.
The movie's blithe treatment of the college acceptance grind feels startlingly out of step with the national conversations we've been having.
Booksmart is not unaware of wealth. It has two comic relief characters, played by Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd, whom Amy and Molly refer to as "the 1 percent" and who are always frantically, and tragically, engaged in attempts to spend themselves into popularity. But their ridiculousness doesn't erase the more low-key ease with which the other kids move through the world and up into the sprawling Encino house that marks the evening's final destination, the location of the party our heroines desperately want to attend. Along the way, they use a ride-hailing app to call a car that turns out to be driven by their principal (Jason Sudeikis) as his second job. It's an encounter that's played for laughs, but it's also, quietly, a sequence of economic humiliation.
Booksmart has been compared to Superbad (2007), and it's not hard to see why. They're both raucous but heartfelt stories about two teenage friends trying to make the most of a big night out before setting off on different paths that will probably pull them apart. But there's another movie that comes to mind when looking at Molly in particular — Alexander Payne's Election (1999), and its dogged would-be class president Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), another eyes-on-the-prize striver whose ambitions have kept her apart from the rest of her classmates. In Booksmart, Molly, the Tracy equivalent, gets placed front and center, given a best friend and a good time. In some ways (though not in their politics), Molly feels like Tracy Flick, set free.
And yet, Booksmart can't entirely separate itself from the kind of "you think you're better than me" resentments that Election's teacher protagonist harbors toward Tracy (who does, of course, think she's better than everyone). Molly experiences a mild comeuppance regarding her own superiority complex, but it rests on the assumption that college acceptance is a pure meritocracy, and that she's misjudged everyone. Realistically, it’s more likely she misjudged the resources that those classmates had available to them. The idea that most of us really do have to work that hard to compete with those who have advantages that we never will — and that we still might not get what we want — is less comfortable as the stuff of comedy. But it's a lot closer to the truth. ●