Friday, 17 May 2019

Booksmart: Nerds of a feather

Kids today don't know how lucky they are, what with the internet having been there since before they were born, social and political equality becoming ever closer to a reality, and not having to worry about destroying the environment because we've already done that. As if all that wasn't enough, they've now got their own defining teen movie: one they'll watch a thousand times in secret before they're old enough, another thousand while they're the same age as the characters, and a thousand more as they barrel through middle age, complaining that kids today don't know how lucky they are.

But the beauty of Booksmart, like all the best high school movies, is that its appeal is wide enough even to cater for knackered old fuckers like me. And that's because while it embraces all the tropes of the teen flicks that so clearly inspired it (The Breakfast Club, Dazed And Confused and Clueless are huge touchstones), it does so with morning-dew freshness, casually and effortlessly updating the genre for a new and woke generation who should, by rights, never find it unusual when popular film protagonists aren't straight, white males.
Amy and Molly are two proudly feminist LA high school nerds whose heroes are Michelle Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Malala Yousafzai. They are also fused together in friendship, as unequivocally displayed in their first scene together: a lift-to-school-slash-dance-sequence that tells you exactly who they are and whether you're going to love them unconditionally or be driven up the wall by them. If it's the latter, leave the cinema at this point, this film is not for you. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein sell their characters and their relationship so hard that it's unfathomable to imagine the two actors haven't been besties forever, and that's a theme throughout Booksmart: characters are introduced as if you've started watching a TV show in the last episode of the last season, and it's up to you to fill in the backstories. It's a technique that's key to the script and to Olivia Wilde's breathless, high-energy direction, and does exactly what films like this should do: it makes you desperately want to be friends with a bunch of made-up people.

What is explained is that Amy and Molly are about to graduate when they realise they've spent too long nerding and not enough time getting high and/or drunk and/or laid, and their mission now is to party their pants off over the course of one incident-fuelled night. Girls just wanna have R-rated fun, and if you've ever watched a film about American teenagers you'll be entirely unsurprised to discover that this will encompass jocks, bitches, rich kids, parties at improbably large houses, beer pong, fumbling sexual encounters, fights, accidental drug intake, crippling social faux pas and an emotional finale.

There are few structural surprises, but that's OK, because pretty much everything else fizzes with shiny newness. The script, written by four women, is hugely sympathetic to both its female and male characters: everyone is treated like a young adult rather than patronised as a child, and the experiences they undergo which may be unfamiliar feel as painfully real as those we've all been through at some point. Nobody is picked on, or even remarked on, because they're LGBT, or BAME, or is wearing a silly hat, and at least one character is all three of those. There's an ingenious bit of commentary on young women and body image that has to be seen to be believed, and the very stereotypes that Booksmart itself relies on to function are frequently examined and challenged.
If all that sounds unbearably worthy, then know this: it's not. In fact it is funny as fuck. Not every gag lands, but Dever and Feldstein are adorable young comedic actors, and Wilde knows full well how to mine a sequence for maximum lols without resorting to the kind of incessant shouting, swearing and general schoolboy humour that often passes for comedy in these things (this is why Booksmart should be remembered long after its embarrassing uncle Superbad has faded into history). And the whole show is pumped up a level by a scythingly modern soundtrack, the entirety of which was new to my ears apart from one song by Alanis Morisette; a situation which has quite violently prompted me to reassess my listening habits.

Booksmart is, of course, entirely about friendship, and the friends you make when you're young that you think and hope will be there for you forever. It's a coming-of-age film packed full of heart that never descends into mawkishness or nastiness, treating all its characters with love and respect even when they're capable of extreme douchery. It's inevitably going to resonate more with a younger audience than someone like me, but it would be a grumpy old bastard indeed who didn't have any fun at all in Amy and Molly's company. They are teen titans; Go! To the movies. (to see them)

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