Arts

SXSW 2019 Film: ‘Booksmart’

Actress turned first time director Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" presents itself with a familiar premise, but offers something new to the table.

With its no-nonsense tagline, “Getting Straight A’s. Giving Zero F’s,” a double dose of comedic cockiness and cinematic audaciousness collide rather vividly in Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.” Despite a cliche premise involving teenagers and the costly efforts to touch the cusp of social popularity, “Booksmart” utilizes its self-awareness in a post-Superbad world to take the generic tropes fronted by its predecessors and carves an identity that not only defies mediocrity but generates an entirely new nuance altogether. 

While teen comedies like “Youth in Revolt” or “Eighth Grade” focus on characters of lower social strata finding contentment from within, “Booksmart’s” protagonists, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), have nowhere to go but down. After building obsessively impressive high school careers and hyper-obedient moral codes, they are faced with a paradigm. Their boorish and partying peers are just as academically successful as them, yet thriving with popularity and exaggerated coolness. As the superiority complex crumbles around them, Molly and Amy are determined to ingratiate themselves with the partiers for one slim chance at redemption before graduation, setting a slew of surprising events into motion. 

Molly and Amy’s dynamic is a refreshing one, redesigning the bromance template from one that relies on sexual adventure and alcohol-imbued benders to a more controlled yearning for identity and renewal of relationship values. Although those raunchier elements are present, they aren’t the core of Molly and Amy’s motivations. Instead, the girls frequently reminisce on the nature of their friendship, using inside-joke token systems — declaring “Malala” for bravery — to push one another deeper into the rabbit hole of a libatious rebellion.

"Taking a look at the film itself, 'Booksmart' is drop-dead gorgeous..."

This tight bond is made even more natural through the ongoing commentary that constantly challenges them to consider the worth of their actions. Wilde is able to create personas that are not only admirable in what they’ve achieved, but in how they carry themselves against the hostile backdrop of high school. Whether that entails Molly’s romantic revelations or the gradual embrace of Amy’s timid homosexuality, the comical rapport is doled out patiently between moments of genuine contemplation and introspection. To this extent, the heroines are just as profound in their support for one another as they are gauche in navigating party attire etiquette and failing to talk up their crushes. 

Taking a look at the film itself, “Booksmart” is drop-dead gorgeous. If the Los Angeles setting was chosen only for its visuals, it could hardly be blamed. The sun beats down with hot, striking shadows that bring out a truly dazzling palette of blue skies, lush greenery and painted stucco homes. The candied aesthetic is carried deliciously into the night, with choirs of streetlamps casting a soft, velvety texture over Californian street scenes that comprise much of the girls’ odyssey. 

Interior lighting deserves praise just as well. As Molly and Amy dashed from the bright, white kitchen of distilled suburbia to rampaging golds and silvers of a Gatsby-esque dinner party to the dim, sexually-charged neon glimmer of a quintessential party — the character of each location is blasted with pizazz. With costume design matching these increments of vice, the rising tension becomes not only a narrative concept but a visual one as well. 

The true star of style, however, is the editing. Early in the film, Molly and Amy rendezvous to carpool to school, dancing along to a grooving hip-hop track. With a hard cut, the music abandons the girls to dance in utter silence, in the middle of the street, in bright daylight. Among crowd laughter and the dancing that continues inexplicably, this moment is symptomatic of the editing at a larger glance. Editor Jamie Gross seems to expertly capture the essence of adolescence, with all its awkward hiccups and moments of self-consciousness that it involves.

"Feldstein and Dever’s chemistry is unbelievably charismatic, yet believably natural."

With the work of cinematographer Jason McCormick, the typical scene may be abruptly interrupted by pop music and characters sashaying in slow motion, as if to portray imagery of the quasi-badass. However, it may end with a quippy line that marks an instant smash cut to the next shot, such as in the final scene that elicited raucous laughter from the audience as the credits slammed against the screen. Wilde’s visual choices are stellar, providing reinforcement to the narrative that makes this story not only a trip to get through but a delight. 

It may seem to follow the typical narrative beats of the hero’s journey, but the moving parts that make the movie work to rearrange and joyfully play with the techniques seen in comedies  and build a creative playground for the characters to discover themselves in. Feldstein and Dever’s chemistry is unbelievably charismatic, yet believably natural and well-earned as this friendship tumbles through highs and lows that challenge and edge the girls toward a position of inner harmony. 

The on-screen world is vibrant and perpetual, offering satisfying conclusions that don’t feel forced or unwelcome. “Booksmart” is a splendidly promising debut for Wilde’s directorial career, proving that the coming-of-age genre doesn’t necessarily require shock-factor comedy or hierarchical cliches to get its message across with boosted entertainment value — which is quite respectable for something that gives zero F’s. 

Final Grade: A- 


Christian Memmo is a film columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.

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