Olivia Wilde’s Directorial Debut, ‘Booksmart,’ Aches To Be Something Its Not

Senior Editor
05.24.19

In an early scene from Booksmart, the feature directing debut of actress Olivia Wilde, Beanie Feldstein’s pedantic overachiever, Molly, discovers with horror that all the “cool” kids she goes to high school with, whom she’s looked down upon for four years as losers and burnouts, are now headed off to colleges just as prestigious as the one she is. “I’m going to Yale too,” says Triple A, a girl so nicknamed because she gives “roadside service.”

“I’m playing soccer at Stanford,” says the guy drawing dicks on the bathroom wall.

“I’m actually skipping college to work as a coder at Google,” says the long-haired Stoner guy who flunked seventh grade twice.

This scene is intended as a jumping off point for a Superbad/John Hughes-esque comedy about two girls, Molly and Amy (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, respectively) who spent high school avoiding parties only to discover that the kids partying did just as well in school as they did. Now they have one last night to have some fun before they graduate, on a wild goose chase to find the cool party and confess their shameful crushes — Molly’s on jock Nick (Mason Gooding), Amy’s on free spirit chick Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).

That’s what we’d call “a commercial pitch,” a gender-swapped Superbad with a lesbian angle, and Wilde and her cinematographer, Jason McCormick, do shoot beautiful pictures (one underwater sequence, in particular, is a visual masterpiece). Yet the movie also feels like it exists entirely within a Sheryl Sandberg fantasy world where the children have indeed learned to code. Neither Wilde nor Booksmart‘s four credited screenwriters seem to have considered what it would actually mean if every single person at your high school, even the jocks and stoners, were headed off to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, or Google. It would probably mean that you were going to private school with Lori Loughlin and William H. Macy’s kids.

That would seem to make Booksmart‘s premise rich with the potential for timely comedy. But Booksmart doesn’t want to acknowledge privilege or skewer entitlement. It’s perfect that in one of the first scenes one of the kids mentions Google alongside prestigious colleges (his friend even consoles him that it’s not Apple). To these people, they’re the same thing: fashionable brands. Yale exists for them not as a college, but as a status symbol. Attending ASU would be like socks with sandals.

Lest you think it’s me trying to “inject politics” into a high school sex romp, I assure you, politics are present from the very first scene, a panning shot through Molly’s room, with her framed pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, until Amy picks her up from school in her Volvo with “RESIST” and “still a nasty woman” stickers. That’s a lot of political window dressing for a movie that otherwise doesn’t seem much interested in politics.

Molly, we learn, is widely disliked at school, for her joyless, almost spiteful careerism. At one point, while hiding in a stall in the school’s all-gender restrooms, she overhears some guys call her a “butter personality.” As in, everything about her is good but her personality (this being one of a handful of legitimate laugh lines in Booksmart). That she’s so status-focused that she’s alienated most people around her likewise feels like the perfect jumping off point to skewer this kind of cold, faux-technocratic elitism (the more personable Amy, who has been openly gay for two years, is going to Botswana “to help people make tampons”).

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