“Booksmart feels baked in sexual diversity.”
Title: Booksmart (2019)
Director: Olivia Wilde 👩🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Katie Silberman 👩🏼🇺🇸, Susanna Fogel 👩🏼🇺🇸, Emily Halpern 👩🏼🇺🇸, and Sarah Haskins 👩🏼🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Booksmart bursts out of the gates and takes its audiences on a ride, wielding standard hallmarks of teen sex comedies to tremendous effect. In her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde uses the sturdy foundation of familiarity to let fly modern flourishes. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, in their roles as the neurotic Molly and risk-averse Amy, flip the genre on its head. Yes, it’s fun to watch women—one of them gay—take on raunchy humor instead of the usual fare of straight boys affirming rape culture. But more than that, Booksmart’s frenetic pacing and electric soundtrack, which careens between indie-pop and thumping hip hop, zaps the film with insta-personality.
Not every scene feels perfect, and in a way its overstuffed nature can overwhelm or even drag with its inanity. But above all, I appreciated Wilde’s bombastic first shot. Spit-shined polish and a clear point of view already vaults her work above that of several veterans.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
One of Booksmart’s calling cards is its centering of young women in a genre historically reserved for men. After all, it isn’t very “ladylike” to get piss-drunk, take drugs, projectile vomit, or to crash your high school graduation fashionably late, spinning donuts onto the blacktop in your cap and gown.
Hardly limited to Molly and Amy, a plethora of women in any kind of role you can imagine fill the screen. This mirrors the talent behind the scenes, achieving what Variety reports was the original goal of producer Jessica Elbaum—“to give more opportunities to women in the industry.”
Wilde and Booksmart’s four female screenwriters—and four female producers, out of five total—prove what great things can come from a clearly communicated vision. By prioritising gender representation, a feminist world the likes we seldom see in mainstream movies comes to life. Impressively, this is all done without skipping a comedic beat. The messages land because they never take themselves too seriously. Instead of a glaring attempt at “girl power”, the girls onscreen are just living their lives, being eccentric (Billie Lourd’s Gigi), snarky (Molly Gordon’s ‘Triple A’), or chill (Victoria Ruesga’s Ryan). Individuality is more empowering than pat messages or obvious stereotype reversals ever could be.
In fact, all high school labels that were canonized in the ‘80s—the Jock, the Burnout, the Nerd, etc.—are gleefully dismantled for both male and female characters. What results is a furiously modern look at young people, as every kid in Booksmart stands on their own personality and preferences.
Even though the film centers two white girls against a backdrop of mostly white high schoolers, Booksmart does make an effort to cast inclusively among its supporting and minor characters.
Comedian Jessica Williams, who is Black, plays Molly and Amy’s teacher. They adore her and later in the film, she helps them out of a bind—a purpose that skirts the Magical Negro trope of appearing only to help white characters. Luckily, she does get a bit of her own storyline, even if that storyline takes the “cool teacher” role touch too far as she joins a high school party and accepts the flirtations of a student, Theo (Eduardo Franco). The scene raises eyebrows but ultimately doesn’t go too far, mostly excusable because the film takes place the day before graduation. Assuming Theo’s over 18, their odd coupling stays aboveboard (if morally gray).
Theo, played by Mexican-American actor Franco, appears only a handful of times but in a great role as someone who has already been hired by Google to a six-figure job as a coder. Meanwhile Ryan, the object of Amy’s affections, is also played by Latinx actor Victoria Ruesga. Other characters of color appear through the skater bro Tanner (Nico Hiraga, who is half Japanese) or musical theater star Alan (Austin Crute, who is Black).
In every case they’re written with colorblindness, with no cultural touchpoints worked into their characterizations. For all intents and purposes, every character in Booksmart could be white, save for the way they’ve been cast. This box-ticking falls short of true inclusiveness, which takes advantage of cultural diversity and its richness in order to deepen the narratives of individuals.
While Booksmart may feel tentative on race, it roars back to full confidence on queer representation. Amy is a lesbian and her romantic threads never get treated differently than those of a straight main character. More than that, her adorably awkward courtship of Ryan stands as the most important romantic arc of the entire film. Molly’s crush on the dumb-cute (but still Ivy League-bound) Jared, played by Skyler Gisondo, falls secondary to the multiple scenes that occur between Amy and Ryan.
The central romance is just the tip of the iceberg. Booksmart feels baked in sexual diversity, as students at the various parties Molly and Amy bounce between are shown in a variety of couplings and sexual orientations. In this way, filmmakers accurately capture the mood of Gen Z—a group that increasingly understands that sexuality and gender is a spectrum, if a 2017 study of British youth is to be believed where one-third of young adults (aged 16-22) considered themselves to be LGBTQ.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.50/5
Between Kay Cannon’s Blockers (2018) or Netflix’s new series Sex Education, I’m excited to see more coming of age stories built for modern audiences with both feminist and LGBTQ-friendly perspectives. I’m still waiting for more major studios to take advantage of how ethnically diverse Gen Z kids are—nearly half are non-white in the States—by centering their stories instead of relegating them to supporting roles. But in the meantime, Booksmart manically smashes its own set of barriers and I can’t wait to see where Wilde will take us next.