Monday, May 27, 2019

Booksmart is absolutely adorable (Movie Review)

Kaitlyn Dever Beanie Feldstein
Booksmart - 8/10

I don't review movies often on this site, but "Booksmart" was so adorable and has a really well-done lesbian lead character so I couldn't resist. All you really need to know is that this film is absolutely adorable, and even if not quite perfect, it's well worth watching.

The movie is about Molly and Amy, two studious, awkward high school seniors about to graduate who face the realization that while they spent their entire high school careers studying to get into great colleges, many of their peers managed to balance studying and fun and still get into great colleges. Right there we see what separates this film from other typical teen comedies, and especially the "we're geeks who squandered our time and now we must leave in a blaze of redemptive glory" type movies. For while it is that second one, it consistently delivers welcome messages along the way - queer acceptance (nonchalance really), active consent, and no visible peer pressure to drink or do drugs (although there is a little of both in the film).

The plot follows Molly and Amy, who aren't exactly popular, as they attempt to make their way to a giant house party on the night before graduation. The goal is for Amy to finally tell her feelings to the girl (Ryan) she likes, and maybe hook up along the way. For Molly, it's mostly about having people see a more complete side to her, but also a little about her crush on the popular boy too.

Molly and Amy's dialogue, actions, and general awkwardness are exactly like real teens. They reminded me so much of my teen daughter and her friends. Unlike most media with teens who don't act anything like true teens, these two come off very authentic (for a comedy movie that is). Because in real life, even the popular kids are still awkward teens, the way they move in their still growing bodies, the way they speak somewhere between childhood and adulthood, and this movie nails it for the two leads. Sadly, it doesn't totally hold true for the side characters who are mostly played for stereotypes (and all seem much older than 18), but at least the stereotypes are so well written (and the actors seem to be having a lot of fun with them) that it's excusable.

I love the queer representation in this film. Having an out lesbian lead character where the film isn't about coming out is awesome. Unlike "Love Simon" which was okay, but not great, this film normalizes being queer. In addition to Amy, there are at least several other likely queer characters, and even though it isn't made explicit, having at least 3 queer characters is starting the process of eliminating tokenism. Also, actor Austin Crute absolutely crushes his scene playing some sort of Norma Desmond/Carol Channing over-the-hill 1920s actress in a murder mystery themed party they end up at (he pretty much kills every scene he's in). The writing is just so sharp, and manages to be funny without ever making fun of any category or group of people.

Some of the other great things in this film:
1) Active consent - although it occasionally feels forced, the film explicitly advocates for active consent (usually in a funny way) at least three times. Even if it is a bit obvious, I'd rather my kids get obvious affirmation on consent than other things that are usually in teen films. Way to go!
2) There are so many subtly funny lines. Punchlines that had me giggling even if most in the audience thought were just throwaways. There are also so many honest scenes and moments. There is a scene where Molly and Amy are watching something inappropriate on their phone and the subtly different ways each character reacts is a testament to the acting and also the truth of where each is at - its comedy without being broad or mean.
3) The actress who plays Gigi steals nearly every scene she is in. She's a recurring gag that really works. The actress sells it so well.
4) There was an absolutely perfect joke about coming out. It went more or less like this:
     Ryan (the girl Amy likes): "I always wished you'd come out."
     Amy: "Oh, uh, I did, like in 10th grade."
     Ryan: "No, I meant on the weekend to hang out."
It was done with some simplicity, like, "duh Amy, we all know your gay, no big deal." And was both funny and sweet at the same time.

However, despite my raves so far. The film isn't quite perfect. Here are some things I wished had been tightened up:
1) Some early scenes drag - the film could have used another pass at editing, especially the first act where some scenes just went on too long, or might have been able to be left out. In fact, cutting 10 minutes out of the film would have helped its pacing overall.
2) While most of the writing is SOOOOO good, there were a few moments, a few scenes, where it just went a little too "teen movie" for my taste and broke from the sincere (but funny) realism of the majority of the film.
3) The vomit gag. This really really should have been cut out. There's actually another perfect spot (pun intended for those who have seen the film) that could have been used instead to end the scene between Amy and Hope instead of needing a gross-out joke. This was one of the few times where I felt like the writing let the film's otherwise consistent over-achievement down.
4) Molly, one of our two leads, wasn't given enough background. I think there's more there that I would have liked to see explored. There is a hint that maybe her parents aren't around. They aren't in the film, she lives in a weird apartment complex, and no one is home to greet her after she gets back from the party. But I didn't totally know her motivation, and although they set up her character well early on, she isn't actually given as much growth as it might seem (although the actress nails what she has to work with).
5) There was a teacher hooking up with a student - AND THIS IS NEVER OKAY - no matter that the student was held back and is 20. This demeans teachers, it teaches kids the wrong thing about adults and people they should trust, and just served ABSOLUTELY NO NARRATIVE PURPOSE in the story. It also undermined a really great character in the teacher. She had some great lines and this hurt.
6) Which brings me to diversity. This film was better than some, with a black student, a black teacher, a probably bi-racial student (or two), a latinix student, an Asian student, the gay and queer students. But in truth, we had two white leads, and it seemed like very little diversity in the extras that filled out the scenes. Sadly, it was the funny black teacher who was the one that slept with a student. Now, it's not that I needed her to be lionized either, it just sucked that they gave her such a shitty moment. Also, let's get some disability and neuro-diversity in a film too while we're at it (if I'm being greedy, that is).

Now that feels like a whole lot of problems. But the truth is that 95% of the film was great, with some areas where it could have been slightly improved. Nothing is perfect, but the writing is so strong, the lead actresses are amazing, the queer rep is great, the comedy so kindly funny, and just the whole thing had this adorably charming quality to it. It wasn't trying to be "Superbad" even though everyone compares it to that (I'm a huge Michael Cera fan, and that's actually one of my least favorite of his films). Booksmart proved that comedy can be kind and still funny and that teen coming-of-age comedies don't have to be gross-out, drunken, make-out fests (because really, very little in high-school is actually ever like that). I highly recommend seeing this film. I'm 39 and enjoyed it, I bet teens will too. Booksmart gets an 8/10.

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