Perhaps the most loudly praised film of 2019 thus far is Olivia Wilde’s critically acclaimed Booksmart, a raunchy high school comedy starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as two over-achieving, model students on the cusp of graduation and college onward. However while their futures are bright, there’s one thing holding them up: the fact that they’ve admittedly forfeited the indulgences of the high school experience (i.e. partying, hooking up, drinking) for the hegemonic title of “smart” student. Not so bad a premise on the surface, but when we look at what exactly spurns this brutal realization, alarm bells begin to ring, bells that keep ringing up to the film’s expectedly derivative ending.
Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) spend the beginning of the film basking in their veiled air of superiority over their less-disciplined peers; while they clearly lack social finesse, they ultimately find security in their academic prowess, evidenced by their acceptance in to Ivy League universities Yale and Columbia, respectively. As long as they’re attending exclusive colleges that their peers can’t, it doesn’t matter how ill-liked they are. In an early scene in the school bathroom, Molly eavesdrops on a group of antagonistic seniors trash talking her. Visibly offended, she confronts the clique with the retort that because she’s the disciplined valedictorian she is, who hasn’t spent the last four years screwing around like they did, because she got into Yale and they didn’t, she wins. One of the mean seniors mocks Molly, asserting she’ll be seeing her at Yale later in the fall since she too got into the esteemed university. Taken aback, the next senior in the troupe admits he has a scholarship to play soccer at Stanford and the third guy says he’s going to work for Google as a software engineer straight out of high school. Panicked, Molly rushes out into the hallway to find out where every one else is going. They all respond with the stereotypical highbrow colleges (Harvard, Berkeley, etc.), to the point it’s clear that pretty much everyone in the graduating class have achieved the same feats as our accomplished heroes, with a fraction of the social concessions.
As director, Olivia Wilde does a fine job with Booksmart. The film is thoroughly funny as all comedies should be, and the performances are all around as naturalistic and measured as they are entertaining. There a few bits here and there that begin to grate, but Wilde otherwise succeeds at actualizing the Superbad-esque high school party/coming-of-age movie from a seldom depicted female/LGBTQ+ character perspective. That said, I can’t help but cringe at the inciting realization that drives the plot of the film: the realization that hierarchical gratification is only justified as long as you are higher up in said social ranking. It’s only when Molly learns that she doesn’t have the leg up on her classmates she thought she did that she begins to question her lived perception, which leads them to embark on the night of debauchery that showcases the film’s comedy. By the narrative’s resolution, Molly and Amy haven’t really learned anything as to the intrinsic errors of their held beliefs, as much as they learn to not to be so selfishly beholden to one’s ego and appreciate friends and acquaintances for the truth of who they are. But would Molly and Amy have gone through such a personal journey had their fellow peers not gotten in to the colleges they did? I don’t think they would have.
Film critic A.O. Scott of The NYTimes gushes “[in] Booksmart, Olivia Wilde and the screenwriters don’t so much reinvent the formula as refresh it, infusing some familiar situations with an exuberant, generous, matter-of-factly feminist sensibility.” What’s universally being recognized as the film’s greatest success is really its deepest failing. This “feminist” distinction attributed to Wilde’s film is in direct contradiction with the thesis of its content. The film’s incredulous assertion that everyone at this high school has gotten in to some canonically respected university necessarily posits the notion that signs of hegemonic merit (e.g. admittance to Yale, recruitment by Google with no college degree) are prerequisites for respect. I highly doubt that if the majority of Molly and Amy’s peers were more realistically attending community college or some other middling four year university, our protagonists would have been compelled to make the decisions they do. The politics of Booksmart are well within the rationality of neoliberalism; namely that only those who have met the arbitrary, meritocratic criteria in question are deserving of respect and anyone who hasn’t should be dismissed as the lesser being they are. It doesn’t matter that the participants are female or LGBTQ+ if they can’t identify the problematic logic of their own motives – even worse if the film they’re in can’t either.