I frequent a handful of online message boards and a few weeks ago came across this particularly insightful anecdote from one of my favorite Canadians, a user by the name of BigLargeHuge:
My wife had a stressful day at work yesterday and wanted to watch a dumb comedy. So we queued up the comedy category on Netflix and the first thing that popped up was Snatched with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, which definitely looked dumb to me. My wife said, “Ugh, no. I don’t want to watch a female comedy.” I asked her what the difference was and she said, “With female comedies there’s always a pretense. It’s always about learning to accept yourself as a person. The woman is always unhappy because she’s got a job she hates or she’s sleeping around and we’re supposed to feel embarrassed for her. In the end she learns that everything’s okay because she’s got her friends. No, I just want to watch something with grown men acting like children. Women can’t act like children in movies without it being a shame.”
Mrs. BLH makes a prescient point about contemporary American comedies, as my brain strained for any film that deviated from that those outlined tropes. Films like Bridesmaids or practically any Amy Schumer-led comedy, in one way or the other, fall into these ideological formulas. Even films intended to mirror the actions of male-centric comedies – Bridesmaids toThe Hangover, Ghostbusters 2016 to Ghostbusters 1984, etc – don’t so much enable women to behave like children but rather co-opts their childishness into a form of didactic camaraderie. This deliberately grim and limiting purview of gender roles dictates that women are at a deficiency, whereupon a feminine collective unites to hoist them out of juvenility. Parallel that with any number of Adam McKay/Will Farrell collaborations (producers for Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart) and you’ll find their characters (typically Farrell) take the opposite approach, not so much offering catharsis but rather a continued decline into puerility. As a personal preference, I tend to favor the former over comedies of “grown men acting like children”. But the point is moot when you consider that the option for the latter just doesn’t seem to apply to female-led comedies.
With this in mind, I walked into Booksmart with optimism. Beyond the accolades and positive ink it has earned since it’s SXSW premiere, I was just in need of a comedy that didn’t feature Seth Rogen. But I had BLH’s post in mind when approaching Booksmart and was surprised by how the film both dissolves and affirms his wife’s female-centered comedy manifesto.
Booksmart involves two high school seniors, Amy and Molly (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein). It’s their last day of school and Molly walks the halls with a measure of self-importance – she’s going to Yale and leaving behind these people. She’s the pro-active, intelligent type that may as well be a reprisal of Amy Poehler’s Parks and Rec character, Leslie Knope. Amy is the salutatorian to Molly’s valedictorian, a meek lesbian that tends to play it safe and is more or less saddled as Molly’s sidekick.
It was amusing to see these teenagers, particularly Molly, assert their academic intelligence over other students. The way Molly looks down upon the student body, particularly those who opt to party every night or smoke in the student restroom, is very specific (and oh-so recognizably true). But when Molly discovers that several members of her class will be attending prestige universities like her, she’s crushed; she responds to the news by accusing them of “not caring about school”, to which one of the student’s bitingly replies, “I don’t only care about school.”
As the narrative dictates, Molly and Amy decide to attend a party, signaling a purposeful rejection of placid academia. Writers (deep-breath) Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman rely extensively on highlighting Molly and Amy’s social ineptitude and the result, primarily because Feldstein and Dever are so convincing, is frequently hilarious. Part of what makes it work is how the writers more or less permit Molly and Amy to be dumb, whereupon inexperience lends itself to one misstep after another.
Meanwhile, Wilde’s formal instincts, as an actor, would initially seem to highlight her performers. She does, but I was also impressed with her use of sound, which often lends itself to some of Booksmart’s funnier and touching sequences. Whether it’s the moment the two young women charge a phone in a Lyft or the numerous musical needle drops (Wilde’s use of oh baby by LCD Soundsystem is a chef’s kiss) that take place throughout Booksmart, Wilde’s aural instincts imbue the film with a somewhat manic energy. It’s not all too different from something like Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, insofar that Molly and Amy embody Griffin Dunne’s journey towards self-realization.
But it’s this quality that in many ways oversimplifies Booksmart. Amy is in a particularly vulnerable position as she consistently defers to Molly on all their social engagements. The scene where the two come at odds just seems so manufactured and frankly unnecessary. In some ways, the entire conceit backs itself into a corner, whereby Amy and Molly’s breakup signals a passage of self-discovery – the needing to let go of childish things. A similar sequence, played out in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird that also involves Feldstein, did a more notable job of capturing the minute details that cause friends to drift. Booksmart’s response would seem to be less about lyricism and more about clumsy exposition.
But if the breakup between Amy and Molly abandons some of the manic energy that drives Booksmart, it’s mercifully a third act detour that doesn’t take much away from what preceded it. The good will that Wilde and her coterie of writers build, along with the integrity and commitment of all the film’s performers, manages to steer the film through its rockiest passages. But contrast this to something like Bridesmaids or Lady Bird or the film that the film’s marketing would suggest it shares a kinship with, Superbad: Molly and Amy start off the film with a future paved before them, opt to take a brief scenic route toward immaturity, and get back on their path, knowing now what they’ve missed all along and comforted in just knowing. There’s no shame in childishness – it’s just not for them.