Teen movies have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. In 2016, Kelly Fremon Craig’s “The Edge of Seventeen” starred Hailee Steinfeld as a smart-beyond-her-years high school junior grappling with the rigors of growing up in the modern world. Woody Harrelson turned in a top-notch performance as her history teacher and adult confidant. It was a refreshingly realistic look at high school life.
Then just last year, comedian Bo Burnham made his directorial debut with a masterpiece called “Eighth Grade,” in which Elsie Fisher stars as an incoming high school freshman who wants desperately to fit in with the crowd, but simply doesn’t. Burnham’s original screenplay turned the teen movie genre upside down with its shockingly genuine portrayal of teens – actually played by teens – and the perils of maturing in the fishbowl known as school.
Gone, it would seem, are the days of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” in which every high school stereotype is accentuated to the Nth degree, and in which teens are presented as so all-knowing that their thoughts and words could only be supplied by adults re-writing their own high school experiences to fit a more “cool” narrative. Yes, the high school comedy/drama genre has finally been turned on its head, and Hollywood is belatedly providing product to which teens – and their parents – can relate.
Given this recent steep advancement in the teen film brand, I had high hopes for Olivia Wilde’s first directorial effort, “Booksmart” – a comedy about two overachieving high school seniors who finally decide to party with the cool kids the night before graduation. And while I was impressed with the intelligence of the protagonists, I regret to say that I was disappointed in the overall effort.
Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s younger sister) was notable in a small supporting role opposite Saoirse Ronan in the 2017 classic “Lady Bird.” Here she has the chance to play one of the two leads as Molly – a girl who apparently remembers everything from every class ever taken, nails the SAT exam, and gets accepted to Yale. She also meticulously plans everything in her life; the Yale acceptance is merely the last of her high school goals.
Character actress Kaitlyn Dever also shines in her first lead role as Amy, Molly’s lifelong best friend and fellow Brainiac, who plans to attend Harvard following a missionary trip to Botswana. Amy and Molly pepper their dialogue with references from their classwork to pop culture. In other words, Plato’s writing and Drake’s rapping could come up in the same sentence with these two. It’s fun to try and follow their thought processes, albeit not necessarily realistic.
When a popular girl known as Triple A advises Molly that she too has been accepted to Yale, Molly realizes that she could have allowed herself to have more fun during her high school years, rather than spending all her time on her studies. Hence the desire to party the night before graduation. It’s a preposterous set-up, but Wilde basically handles it well – never allowing the screenplay to veer so far off-course as to shatter the reality established at the outset.
It takes the girls a long time to reach their destination, as their Lyft driver deposits them at the house of Jared, a wealthy, overly-confident but unpopular student hosting his own party which almost no one is attending – save for drug-crazed Gigi, a girl unlike any high schooler I’ve ever known, and played by Billie Lourd, who’s almost 30.
Their next driver happens to be their principal, Mr. Brown (Jason Sudeikis of “Saturday Night Live”) who apparently makes so little money he moonlights as a Lyft driver – even the night before graduation. In a scene not reminiscent of anything anyone’s ever done, the girls accidentally play a porn video through Mr. Brown’s car speakers.
Anyway, he too takes them to the wrong party – a murder mystery party hosted by two of the theatre students, who revive long-buried gay stereotypes that feel like they belong in a Mel Brooks spoof from the 1970s. Haven’t we advanced to the point where the performing arts students can be presented as fully realized and complex characters, as was the case in “Lady Bird” and “Eighth Grade?” Ironically, Gigi appears at this party as well, cementing her character as a one-joke punch line. How can she possibly be at all the parties at the same time? Obviously, no one can – and the fact that Gigi’s character is in “Booksmart” at all is indicative of what’s wrong with this film: It purports to present an authentic snapshot of high school life in today’s society, yet the four screenwriters jam-pack the cast with cartoon characters either not based in reality or so cliched as to be improbable at best.
When the girls finally arrive at their destination, we’re “treated” to the old unsupervised high school party scene, complete with underage drinking and promiscuous sex. I thought “Eighth Grade” had put to rest this figment of the imaginations of nerdy Hollywood screenwriters who seemingly believe this is how the cool kids spent their weekends. It wasn’t true when “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was released in 1982; and it isn’t true now.
At the party, both Molly and Amy seem to hit it off well with their respective crushes – who just so happen to both be present at this party, along with the girls’ favorite teacher. (I know, is any teacher ever present at any high school party?) But then things go wrong, and the girls each learn lessons about themselves and about their friendship.
A few of the characters turn out to have more depth than originally presented, and this is refreshing. Feldstein and Dever are excellent in their roles; I only wish they had been presented with a more plausible screenplay. “Booksmart” succeeds on a few levels, but not enough to recommend it. I suppose if “The Edge of Seventeen,” “Eighth Grade,” and Jason Reitman’s 2007 comedy-drama “Juno” (the picture that started this trend of superior teen films) never been released, “Booksmart” would seem a little more invigorating. As it is, “Booksmart” is well-meaning and earnest, but an unfortunate step backward in the evolution of the coming-of-age teen comedy.