Synopsis: Two best friends party the night before graduation.
Part I. Premise
Ever had that dream where you are back in high school? Of course you have and it’s a nightmare. Whether you can’t remember your locker combo or some psycho has kicked you down the stairs, the surge of panic is the same: What? No! I did my time… Many of us (the sane ones) do not want to revisit that s&*t again. But revisiting high school in a movie is a safe place to work out our teen pasts. Yes, in this context it’s possible to enjoy high school with movies including The Breakfast Club (1985), House Party (1990), Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Lady Bird (2017). There’s lots to choose from and unlike high school, you don’t have to start at 7:30 AM and you’re done in two hours.
Director Olivia Wilde, and stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever enter the hallowed halls of movie high school in Booksmart. The movie is set in present day Los Angeles where two best friends, seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are on the cusp of high school graduation. “Booksmart High School” (BHS) seems to have a high graduation rate, what with so many seniors headed to Ivies and Tier I schools. And therein lies the linchpin for the movie…
Uber confident and self-assured class prez Molly is pleased with herself that her all work and no play lifestyle has paid off in acceptance to Yale. Her bestie Amy is more low-key, but just as studious. She’ll be going to Columbia. On the last day of school Molly overhears a few classmates making fun of her, saying she’s cute, but has the personality equivalent of a “but-her-face.” Basically a dull grade grubber. Molly confronts the classmates and taunts them that she’s going to an Ivy, but they are not. But then -horrors!- she learns that scores of her peers are going to Ivies and highly selective colleges.
Well, she freaks out and then bitches to her friend Amy that they could’ve had fun too instead of studying all the time. In order to make up for lost time, she insists they go out and party on the night before graduation. Amy is reluctant, but Molly says that the girl Amy has a crush on will be at Nick’s big party. He’s the class VP whom Molly had written off as a dumb jock. But he’s going to Georgetown, dammit!
Part II. Los Angeles in Movies vs Real Life
Uh, can we back up a little? The students at BHS aren’t supposed to discuss their college choices, but we all know no one will be keeping those secrets for months. And students on a college track would figure out that hey, maybe these other people in my AP classes and in honor society are academically competitive. This made me curious about the real life schools in the LA area that BHS might be patterned after…
Let’s look at Beverly Hills High School, with plenty of college-bound kids and affluent parents. It was made famous in Amy Heckerling’s 1995 teen comedy classic, Clueless. BHHS demographic profile is about 74% White, 15% Asian, 8% Hispanic and 2% Black students. I’m not sure if the casting directors cared to acknowledge a significant minority group at BHHS, Jewish Iranian students. Their parents’ families fled Iran due to the 1979 revolution that made the nation an Islamic republic.
BHHS’s Class of 2019 pupils were accepted into lots of top schools, including Columbia (Amy’s school), but not Yale (Molly’s school). So let’s head to another of the LA area’s premier high schools: Harvard-Westlake High School (no affiliation with Harvard). Its student demographics are about 68% White, 18% Asian, 7% Black and 5% Hispanic. But HW has a “Head of Upper School,” not a principal like in the movie. In Booksmart, the principal is played by Jason Sudeikis (the director’s partner). When he turns out to be one of Molly and Amy’s rideshare drivers, he explains that he needs the money. So yeah, public school. Besides, HW is more than 38K a year! And surely Molly’s parent(s) can’t afford that because her family lives in a modest apartment building. Although she could be a scholarship student. Anyway, BHS is definitely a public school and not modeled after HW where Molly’s personifier Beanie Feldstein went to high school. But also not a public school like most kids in LA go to where the demographics, depending on the county, are over 50% Hispanic, 15- 30% White, less than 9% Black and 3-16% Asian. So, yeah BHS is its own thing, a movie high school.
Part III. The Impostor
Booksmart takes off on one of those ‘wild night’ tropes, as Molly and Amy rideshare around to classmates’ parties on a yacht and at a ‘murder mystery’ mansion. They’re on a wild goose chase to find Nick’s party where each young woman has an Object of My Affection present.
Kaitlyn Dever shows quicksilver layers as Amy, flashing vulnerability and excitement while she navigates her life’s possibilities and setbacks. She’s about the same age as her co-star Beanie Feldstein, but the latter’s looks and acting choices for her character Molly make her come off as a woman in her thirties. She has preternatural poise, impervious to other students’ barbs. And she speaks to faculty members like a colleague. When she comes on to any of the senior guys, it’s like, stop being age-inappropriate, Molly! Then I got it…
So…Olivia Wilde has said she was inspired by teen films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless. But I saw what was happening; subconsciously (or not), the filmmakers were referencing movies like Never Been Kissed (1999) and 21 Jump Street (2012) where the character/s go back to high school.
We never see Molly’s parents because she is a grown-ass woman living on her own at the apartment complex where Amy picks her up at the beginning of the movie! When Molly actually went to high school fifteen years earlier she was most certainly academically oriented and probably felt like a meek misfit. Maybe she went to UCLA and then bounced around in a few different white collar jobs where she gradually came out of her shell. But satisfaction eluded Molly. Things would’ve been different– better– if she had been accepted into an Ivy league school. So back-to-school for Molly! Class Prez, check. Valedictorian, check. Admission to Yale? CHECK!
No wonder she wanted to party so badly the night before graduation with her teen bestie (whom she could’ve babysat for just a few short years ago). She’s been waiting a long time for this triumph. And no thirty-something woman is going to be intimidated by a bunch of kids. So she ignores the unwritten teen laws of staying within your clique. No f%^ks given for that! And no guy is out of her league, well so long as he is a senior who’s eighteen, not seventeen.
Now that you understand that Molly is a mature woman who has been adulting for years, you will apprehend that Booksmart isn’t just another teen comedy, but an absurdist comedy about a woman who willingly goes back to high school.
IV. Two Postscripts
- The best scene in the comedy isn’t comic, but features a heated argument at a party between Molly and Amy. One of them is upset and pleads with her friend, “Can we go?” But she’s brushed off because her friend is having a good time and will be staying. Those few minutes touched on something real about young women’s intense platonic friendships and their perilous power dynamics; imagine the gaslighting and freeze outs in a movie about that. Scary!
- California has a rich Hispanic-American culture. More than half of California’s high schoolers have Hispanic heritage. Latinx are disproportionately poor compared to other ethnic/racial groups. Among other effects, poverty makes access to higher education a struggle. It’s frustrating that Hollywood marginalizes the majority in California. Time for a good teen comedy featuring the future of Cali, striving Latinx.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Not on the level of the great Dazed and Confused (1993), but quite satisfactory. It’s similar in quality to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008).
Humor Highlight: Banter between the two main characters, Molly & Amy.