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

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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”).

Only, unlike, say Girls, in which the similarly well-off, self-centered white girls it depicts were usually the butt of the joke, Booksmart seeks apolitical hijinks humor, trying to squeeze laughs from those old teen movie standbys: getting hit with water balloons, people knocking books out of nerds’ hands, masturbation jokes, “dumb” guys (who are nonetheless going to Stanford) crushing cans on their foreheads — all while the movie’s flamboyant characters (Austin Crute and Noah Galvin, who are admittedly pretty great) cheer Amy and Molly on. You go, girls!

Politics is simply a series of buzzwords and t-shirt slogans. Never is this more clear than in the scene where Amy and Molly use the word “Malala” as their code for a once-a-year, unrefusable favor from each other. It’d be one thing if two Yale-bound rich girls using the name of a Pakistani activist shot by the Taliban for advocating women’s schools was meant to poke fun at their melodramatic self-importance, but it’s not. If anything, it’s aspirational — look how smart and cool and politically conscious these girls are. It’s meant to demonstrate political awareness, but shorn of any substantive context it mostly just demonstrates familiarity with the display rack titles at a Barnes And Noble.

Like John Hughes’ movies — which were all set in the fictional Shermer, Illinois, a place where, as Jay in Dogma put it, “All the honeys are top-shelf and the dudes are whiny pussies (except for Judd Nelson, he was fuckin harsh)” — Booksmart seems to take place in a fictional universe where everyone is effortlessly brilliant and casually sexually accepting; where Molly literally has a gay best friend but doesn’t know anyone going to a state school. We know what kind of high school this is, even if the movie doesn’t: a private one for the very rich and the very cool. The name of Booksmart‘s fictional place? “Los Angeles.” Which in the film is described as “40 minutes from the state line.” (come on, man, you can barely get from WeHo to Silverlake in 40 minutes!)

You could argue that this is a throwaway discrepancy, and in a vacuum it would be, but the key to most great teen movies is specificity. It’s why Ladybird transcends any teen movie cliché. Booksmart’s version of specificity mostly feels like old tropes plastered in new stickers. It seems to take place in this weird bubble, where everyone is sexy and Yale-bound and achingly cool (even its supposedly uncool protagonist is the class president). That it never really acknowledges this makes you wonder if the filmmakers know it exists.

There’s exactly one character through whom Booksmart ever acknowledges class, Jared (Skyler Gisondo), a contemporary play on Ducky who is now a pseudo hypebeast who drives a loud muscle car and wears gold chains. “Here comes the one percent,” Molly says when they see him driving up. Jared is a fun, unique character, but it’s obvious that he’s not “weird” to Molly and Amy because he’s the 1%, he’s weird because he’s tacky enough to acknowledge it — new money. In one joke, Jared gets caught listening to Lean In on audiobook. It doesn’t really make sense for his character, it’s just a surprising cross-reference of two familiar things, like a Rick and Morty/Game of Thrones mash-up meme.

True, John Hughes movies asked us to cheer for relatively well-off white kids too, but they also didn’t constantly name drop Margaret Thatcher and Sandra Day O’Connor and Ryan White while they were doing it. A gender-swapped, non-sexist American Pie is a great idea, but a teen sex romp name-dropping Malala feels… a little high-falutin. Booksmart seems to want recognition as a political symbol without doing anything political.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.