Movie reviews by
2 (out of 4)
As a sister of the mumblecore movement, Olivia Wilde should have felt right at home while crafting her own hipster coming-of-age debut. It's something of a right of passage from Welles and Truffaut to Gerwig and Burnham. In Wilde's case a less than stellar acting career has led to a desperate appeal to the Gen-Z audience in the form of the essay in clichés known as Booksmart.
What is this genre known for? Adolescent insight, barbed one-liners, high school tomfoolery and maybe even a tear or two shed. John Hughes' multiple distillations of this formula gave the 80s a few of its intrinsic flavors but Wilde’s amendment on the tactics match neither Hughes' overrated abilities or the ingenuity of her contemporaries. Unlike the novelties of Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, The Diary of a Teenage Girl or especially and most recently Eighth Grade, Booksmart falls way shy of the creativity of its counterparts. The wisdom is weak, the situational comedy is forced and many characters do little other than secure an imagined quota of LGBTQ+ representation, a political move just as deliberately predispositioned as the rest of the film.
Booksmart wants to be the female Superbad – let the losers loosen up just as high schools ends – but that 2007 flick still holds favor because its script finds the appropriate time for each instance of silliness, satire and insight in order maintain both relative realism and homespun, inappropriate entertainment. Wilde's attempts to illustrate the newfangled quirks of present-day youth are periodically cringe-inducing and ignore any semblance of universality. Even with a hard R, Wilde's film is a soft summer comedy – Booksmart desperately yearns to shine with the luster of an underseen cult classic. It's another faux-indie wide release with an oppressively modern soundtrack (sorry but these girls don’t listen to Death Grips along with Top 40 garbage), broad gags and big comedy names in the lesser roles (Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudekis and Jessica Williams). As much as the supporting casts amuses, a few funny side characters don't outweigh the stock of stereotypes and agenda-fillers.
Leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever both seem typecast. The former repeats her exact role in Lady Bird albeit larger and the latter is still playing high schoolers, this time in a more comic context. Feldstein’s shtick is already stale and Dever’s improvisational chops are nonexistent. Their onscreen friendship has sweet moments but there’s no self-awareness in Wilde asking us to sympathize, not scrutinize, the most priviledged teens imaginable. There’s nothing at all revelatory about realizing rich kids get into ivy league schools regardless of their grades, which is the inciting insecurity of Feldstein's valedictorian, straight-edge protagonist. If Booksmart took place in a midwest town... well the premise would be moot but her character's shock is unrelatable and every succeeding act of their unexpected evening is contrived and unfulfilled.
If it weren’t for the fact that Booksmart has damn near unanimous praise, I wouldn’t blink an eye at a middling SXSW film. I would guess the deeply feminist slant has the liberal majority of critics on its side regardless of the film’s actual content, though I don't deny there are some inspired choices amongst the prescribed fun and feels. Wilde's work still lands without empathetic impact and its coaxing through breakneck editing and blaring needle drops is more exasperating than charming as intended.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
It Chapter Two,
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice