Culture Film & TV

Booksmart: Olivia Wilde’s fresh, fast-paced feminism

Released in 2019 but just now finding its way to Netflix, Oliva Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is a refreshing update to the coming-of-age genre. In this review, Katie Kirkpatrick tells us why this fast-paced, witty, and relatable drama is a welcome addition to the streaming service.

Combining lovable characters, an up-to-date soundtrack and a portrayal of the teenage experience that sits just between ‘authentic’ and ‘larger than life’, Booksmart delivers everything you could want from a teen movie. The female-directed, female-led comedy stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as Molly and Amy, two studious high school seniors. When Molly finds out that their seemingly careless classmates have gotten into equally good colleges, the pair decide that they need to make up for the time they spent focussing only on work, and prove to their classmates that they can be ‘fun’. What follows is a chaotic adventure involving a murder mystery party, some dangerous strawberries, and a stuffed panda toy with an… unexpected purpose. Alongside the comedy, however, the film depicts the nuances of friendship between women and is one of the first mainstream teen movies to feature a lesbian main character.

The film stands out in the way it captures the reality of life as a teenage girl. While touching on all the usual tropes – unrequited love, the high school hierarchy, moving out – Booksmart depicts its characters as real people, rather than mere teenage stereotypes. It doesn’t shy away from the messier or more taboo aspects of girls’ friendship: the film features a realistic, cutting argument between its two protagonists, as well as honest descriptions and depictions of a young woman’s sexuality. Amy’s lesbianism never becomes her whole character, a tendency many films struggle with, and instead the writers explore her truthfully, while remaining light-hearted. Booksmart draws attention to how poorly representative most teen films are of the amount of laughter in young people’s lives: it’s a rare comedy where the characters find things funny too. 

Many aspects of Wilde’s film-making, apart from the excellent characterisation and dialogue, are well-considered. Booksmart’s combination of a provocative modern soundtrack, elements of surrealism, and vivid cinematography gives the film its highly original atmosphere: it’s indefinably, but undeniably, fun. Embracing less typical styles of filmmaking, such as phone videos and underwater camerawork, and incorporating a fantasy dance sequence and a drug-trip scene where the characters become plastic dolls, Bookmart remains unexpected, fresh and exciting throughout. Great teen films have always managed to capture their era: we love The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller for their embodiment of the eighties, and Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You for the nineties nostalgia they generate. In recent years, teen films have started to feel slightly generic; Booksmart battles ubiquity with references to feminism, fashion, sexuality and, for good measure, the Obamas, a perfect time capsule for what it is to be young in the present moment… pre-pandemic, at least.

Booksmart’s soundtrack deserves its own paragraph. The first stand-out musical moment is a dance sequence at the beginning, accompanied by the song To Whom It May Concern. This sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film: Molly and Amy’s awkwardness contrasting with the ‘cooler’ music lends the scene an offbeat, unpredictable humour. The best use of the soundtrack, however, has to be the moment in which Perfume Genius’ Slip Away plays: set against an underwater sequence that leads to tragedy, the music gives the already visually striking scene an otherworldly quality, and builds dramatically to the plot reveal at the song’s conclusion. Other highly enjoyable musical moments include the use of Lizzo’s Boys during a party (the film was released just as the song blew up, a testament to the film’s contemporary accuracy) and a karaoke scene featuring several dramatic renditions of the angsty teen classic You Oughta Know by Alanis Morissette; every musical choice is carefully considered, and adds powerfully to the film as a whole. 

Booksmart is filled to the brim with excellent performances. Feldstein and Dever flawlessly navigate the wild ups and downs their characters experience, and their chemistry as best friends is sparkling and believable. Neither shy away from the bold, the embarrassing, or the gritty. Whilst the supporting characters don’t have the same screen-time to work with, the cast nevertheless manages to give nuanced and comedic performances. Particular credits must go to Billie Lourd as rich, melodramatic party-girl Gigi, and Noah Galvin as eccentric theatre-kid George, who steals every scene he is in. 

Booksmart is perhaps not revolutionary. But it does demonstrate a change for the better in the teen movie genre. With creative filmmaking, truthful dialogue, and larger-than-life comedy, it draws upon the classics that have come before it, and propels them into our current era. Its true originality comes from the way it centres on characters who wouldn’t normally be given the spotlight, depicting young women without making their lives solely about love triangles and gossip. Molly and Amy are funny in their own right, and, above all, human. Booksmart captures adolescence in a way that’s both timeless and contemporary: it’s a true stand-out of the genre. 

Katie Kirkpatrick

Outside of her degree, Katie (she/her) edits creative writing for Cherwell and The Isis Magazine, and her own poetry has won competitions like the BBC Proms Poetry competition. In reality, she spends most of her time tweeting about musical theatre and teen movies.