The conflict that kickstarts Molly and Amy’s adventure in Booksmart is just, something else.
If the characters had set out on a journey to ‘have fun like the normals’, the movie probably wouldn’t have lost out on the many other things that make it good. The plot would’ve remained entertaining, the dialogue would still be great. It could’ve just went on with its fun little shenanigans and no one would’ve complained.
But in the first ten minutes of the film, after we have met all the main characters, we see Molly in a played-out situation. It’s the much-used trope of the protagonist overhearing mean things said about her. But this time, there are two curves to this scene that really set it apart.
First, we see Molly listen to three ‘populars’ rag on her and decide to come out and confront them. She is not the standard shy teenage protagonist, and so she doesn’t take their shit. She comes out and gives a well-worded derogatory speech to the perpetrators, listing the many reasons why she doesn’t care what they think.
Though the speech starts with the audience on her side, the level of venom in her words somewhat flips the script on a standard good-guy takedown. By the time she is done, her words make us feel less like she is an Olive from Easy A, and more that she may instead be a Marianne.
And just as she is walking away with a smug look on her face, and I am coming to terms with my conclusion, the scene swivels again. We see the slut-troped character pipe up and tell her that she’s going to the same college as Molly. And the other two guys are a sports scholar and a programming prodigy. And so, Molly’s world crashes around her, as she stumbles out of the bathroom and demands to know where everyone is going. Most of the so-tagged ‘normies’ are revealed to actually be brilliant, and Molly realizes that she skipped all the fun in school for nothing.
This little scene and the proceeding implication is very important, in my opinion. Not only does this give the girls a real, tangible reason to be doing what they do, but it also makes their situation emotional. I am not American, but I did go to school, and like 90% of any school’s population, I was a middle-r. I wasn’t too popular, or too nerdy. So even though I didn’t stay at home and study the whole time, I graduated with this deep-seated Fear of Having Missed Out. I heard some of the stories other people had from school and it made me feel that my experience wasn’t enough. This is a common feeling, and this is exactly what Booksmart decided to press down on when it showed me this scene.
One more good thing.
My favourite thing about Booksmart and the rest of its American coming-of-age brethren is the taste of friendship. Stories like these, which go from insane fun to intense arguments and back around, work only when the dynamic of its primary group of friends works. And the only times it leaves a mark is when the dynamic feels real.
Booksmart has a dozen slow-motion sequences and caricatured bits of Molly and Amy wildly gassing each other up. It goes on and on about Molly’s obsession with being successful crazy fast and has long sequences of trope-y-ly gay drama school kids riffing. But, the primary friendship dynamic works in a way that will make you crave a best friend like that. Even its secondary friendships are equally functional.
And that, in the end, is the prize-winner. That is the reason one cannot call Booksmart anything but a gold-star movie. Of course, everyone reacts to different things differently and some of the beats may not resonate with another person as well as it did with me. But still. That shit rules.
It’s almost not even worth it, because of the ending.
In every other regard, what singles Booksmart out is that it refuses to submit to the A-B-Cs of teen dram-coms. There are no flawless characters and no one has all of their shit together. The movie doesn’t focus on the partying, but the run-up to and the aftermath of it. And lastly, some of the trope-y-ly established characters got full arcs where they shed those tropes and got the space to be more real.
Then why do the default dream-state, end-of-an-era, every-teen-looks-like-a-model movie thing in the climax?
Don’t get me wrong, the graduation sequence was hilarious and fun to watch. It even tied up a small subplot, like an efficient little movie that this is. But from a perspective of someone who loved how big the feelings of desperation and insecurity were in the film, it didn’t work.
From the moment Molly found out that she had wasted her school life for nothing, the events of the film had been a race to salvage it. Then, near the end, it became a discussion about hope, and new beginnings, and the quelling of her pain in the face of disappointment. I was hoping that that would be what the movie closed with, a somewhat realistic end of their era, that left them cheery but not winners.
Instead, the movie chose to go with outright, whooping and hooting wins. This led to the first few potholes in the plot that weren’t about Billie Lourd’s character (and so, done on purpose). This also closed the story with the idea that it all works out better than you think it does, which, you know, nope. I know why that was the direction chosen for the climax, doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Of course, almost none of the other movies in the genre even evoke so many thoughts (and so many words) out of people. That, in of itself, is a great achievement, and I love that Booksmart has now joined the ranks of Lady Bird and Eighth Grade in that category.
But the best part of this dram-com/rom-com renaissance is that we can discuss the imperfections without lessening our love for the subject. I can say things like, “Lady Bird, while being more dream-state, had an ending that went much farther with me on the emotional front than Booksmart”. And in the same breath regale the exhilaration captured flawlessly in both, the climax and the ending of Booksmart, a thing that Lady Bird took a more sombre route for. Both statements are allowed to be true, and the movies allowed to be good. And that is fucking amazing.
I could genuinely ask for nothing else.