Booksmart and Seeking Empathy

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut earned it’s spot in the ranks of other classic coming of age films.

The week after Memorial Day weekend, a coworker of mine, a big dude covered in tattoos, walked into the office and proclaimed “Everyone has to go see Booksmart.” I had already seen it. He raved about it which pleasantly surprised and excited me to see someone who was not the target audience of the movie at all love it so much. That’s what is so great about coming of age movies. They hit a tender spot in everyone’s life. The past couple years have been an excellent era for coming of age films. The list is long: Dear White People, The Edge of Seventeen, Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, Love, Simon, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and even Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. The newest edition to that list, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, shines as bright as all the rest.

Opening weekend came and local theaters were selling out in advance, so much so that I had to see it at 11:30am. It’s disappointing that the conversation around the movie has devolved into box office squabbles about which diverse/inclusive cast should win the number one seat. Booksmart was never going to win that fight. But looking at reviews, it clearly won over people’s hearts — mine included. It is everything I wanted it to be and more. It isn’t just a raunchy downright hilarious high school comedy. It’s also a visually beautiful film that gets to the heart of high school friendship and society. It’s the movie I didn’t know I needed in high school, in the same way that Eighth Grade is the movie I didn’t know I needed in middle school.

Every individual piece of the movie is wonderful, and when the pieces come together it’s such a joy to watch. The characters, the performances, the jokes, the setting, and the photography all come together to be something special. The thing that struck closest to my heart is the character Molly, played perfectly by Beanie Feldstein. I know a lot of Molly’s. I’ve been Molly. I worked my ass off in high school and didn’t really go to parties. I wasn’t so closed off that I didn’t hang out with peers outside of school, but I definitely had a best friend I was attached to at the hip and a superiority complex. It wasn’t a complex that made me think I was better than everyone, but definitely better than a certain group of kids (the partiers) that I deemed reckless and stupid. And some of them were. But six years down the line I can say that I didn’t know those people at all. A lot of them worked hard to deal with and overcome private struggles to get where they were, and have continued to work hard into adulthood. My petty 17-year-old brain judged them for blowing off steam in the best way they knew how, and used that as an excuse to invalidate everything else about them. I wish I was as lucky as Molly and had learned that lesson in high school.

The film is also a trailblazer for featuring a young teen queer woman as a main character without having any straight male gaze involved. It is so refreshing not to nervously wait for an inevitable demeaning comment by a male character and to just let Amy breathe and develop. She gets the room and freedom to explore herself as a person and her sexuality without the anxiety of coming out or fear of judgement from her classmates. She gets to be anxious about what straight kids are usually anxious about in teen movies: her own inexperience. She has a gloriously awkward hook up with another girl that is so classic of teen romances, but we’ve never seen it from this point of view. It’s honest and beautiful.

The film also struck me because of how extremely intimate it is. The audience is so warmly invited into the Class of 2019, all due to Olivia Wilde’s inspired direction. The film isn’t just hilarious and compelling. It reaches out to the audience and pulls us inside its world. We aren’t just omnipresent, watching everything unfold from a faraway angle. The placement of the camera in each scene makes us feel like a participant instead of a passive viewer. At every opportunity we are Molly and Amy’s peers; we see what they see the way they see it. When Molly and Amy scare the pizza delivery guy in his car, we don’t see it from their point of view or his point of view, we watch from the only other seat left in the car: the passenger seat. When Amy is doing karaoke at the party, her classmates are sitting all around her and on the floor. We watch with them from below, the camera looking up at her. When the police come to the party and Amy comes up with a plan, we don’t watch in third person as she turns to her classmates to strategize. She turns to the camera, and to us, to make her plan. It’s because of we’re so warmly invited into their class that their graduation made me want to cheer with everyone else. I was sitting in the theater but it felt like I was sitting on their school’s lawn in a cap and gown, swelling with pride for these kids and for the respect they had for one another. It’s an idealized high school situation for sure, but the film allows me to forget that. It is earnest without being preachy or cheesy.

Then again, maybe this idealized version of high school isn’t so impossible after all. Young people today are probably the most emotionally intelligent generation there’s ever been. It makes sense that a movie like this would culturally break through. True earnestness isn’t new among the recent coming of age films listed earlier. A lot of them thematically fight against the instinct to be cynical, Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird especially. It’s fitting for a generation of young people who have seen so much tragedy in their lives. The easy thing to do is accept it and expect nothing more from the world, but these films encourage empathy instead. Booksmart satiates a hunger for a more empathetic world. Those who have seen the movie aren’t talking about it’s box office numbers. They do exactly what great films are supposed to do: excitedly talk about how the movie makes them feel.

Based in LA. Works in TV. Spends her free time watching TV, thinking about TV, and arguing and talking to friends and coworkers about TV.

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