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Booksmart and the art of growing up

Dorothy Guy explores why this coming-of-age film resonates so powerfully

There’s a moment when Molly and Amy (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever), the independent, Ivy-League-bound protagonists of Olivia Wilde’s 2019 film Booksmart, give up and give in. Consequently, it’s the moment that I, sitting in a theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my first year of university behind me, flew forward and thought the 2019 equivalent of ‘Is this fucking play about us?’. 

They’ve accidentally ingested drug-laced chocolate strawberries and begin to hallucinate themselves as dolls: their outfits are ridiculous, and their heads are heavier than their torsos – except of course for their chest which is twice as weighty as the rest of their shiny plastic bodies. The two girls, who have bumper stickers plastered with ‘Bernie 2016’, ‘Still a Nasty Woman’, and of course, ‘Bernie 2020’, catch a glimpse of their glamazonian features and are hooked. 

Amy, in the Mean Girls Halloween costume equivalent of Jessie’s outfit in Toy Story, philosophizes, ‘I know this is unrealistic and bad for women, but is it bad? Because I feel pretty good.’ It’s part of the movie’s quest to understand the struggle to become an adult today. We’re told to want it all, shown on social media that it’s possible, but commanded to stay relentlessly humble, even to hide our accomplishments. Amy and Molly and the rest of us live in the Duck Syndrome generation: as much as Amy proclaims to decry beauty standards, she can’t quite reject them. On the top, they float. They’re funny, brilliant, and having a good time, but the stress of perfection and the need to seem care-free and self assured is daunting. On their trip, they become living representations of the pain of looking at a photo of Emily Ratajkowski in a bikini on Instagram with the caption, ‘all bodies are beach bodies’. Sure they’re wonderful, but pretending that our insecurities are surmountable purely through the actions of the body positivity movement are ludicrous. 

Both girls are balls of nerves, and, Molly in particular, after learning that everyone is going to great colleges after high school – even after four years of seemingly lax behaviour, partying, and casual sex has a meltdown. To her ultimate horror, she learns that Annabelle ‘Triple-A’s social skills are matched only by her test taking abilities. Like Molly, she is off to Yale, and when they get there, she wants to pretend that the two don’t know each other. She learns that everyone she looks down on – slackers, heiresses, and athletes (including her Vice President, whose only role, she claims, is to plan parties) are off to incredible things. Molly spirals, the internal nosedive animated by the final bell and rave-like hallway antics of the beginning of summer vacation. If she isn’t better than everyone else academically, then what was the point of shipping herself off to social Siberia all those years ago?

When I sat down with my ludicrously large popcorn, I expected to settle down and view it with a newly earned jaded eye towards high school. There would be the ridiculous montage; the heroines would start by transforming themselves through sheer power of will but ultimately learn to accept themselves; the doll scene and Molly’s spiral of perfectionism reveal the movie to have a greater message about our culture and a much more realistic execution. By the end, their seemingly unconquerable love interests would be conquered (see the film’s spiritual ancestor, Superbad). 

To quote one of the most iconic scenes from HBO’s Euphoria, ‘Is this fucking play about us?’. I thought back to the nights I patted myself on the back for not going to the party, or when I went above and beyond on a presentation that simply didn’t matter, and at the end of it watched (happily, I feel the need to add) the girls who did both, who seemingly had it all, go to the same institutions I did. In contrast with movies I armed myself with throughout high school, Mean Girls (shown to us, incredibly, in middle school health class), Legally Blonde, and Clueless, Booksmart is about young women who have already succeeded but can’t quite shake their impostor syndrome. 

Gigi, the wild rich girl who would be the villain in another version of this movie, just wants everyone else to have a good time. She defends Amy – who she barely knows – by screaming, ‘You do not speak to her that way. That is my best friend in the world.’ She’s not quite ‘popular’ (we, arguably live in a post-Popularity world), but she’s the life of the party, and to Molly’s horror, she receives acceptance to her ‘fifth choice’, Harvard (though the role of nepotism in that decision is left ambiguous). Both she and ‘Triple-A’ are social and academic successes, but while Gigi is ultimately too relaxed to seem to have any actual insecurities, though that could be due to her immense wealth (a flaw in the film due to its lack of deeper investigation), Annabelle reveals that she hates her reputation, mostly because the other girls so easily believe it. It’s a familiar message of women supporting women, but the reality of the environment (even amongst the hallucinations and fact that no school in America has that many ivy league acceptances), is what makes Booksmart special. Here, no one is as miraculously peppy as Elle Woods, ridiculously vapid as Cher Horowitz, or as hilariously naïve as Cady Heron (or as evil as Regina George for that matter). Booksmart is not populated by caricatures. It’s about high school, and the worst part about high school is the realization that there is no movie montage, that nothing will miraculously and permanently transform you overnight. 

By the time the girls graduate, they’ve given up believing that their classmates hate them, but more importantly they find themselves together – still best friends, still ambitious and imperfect and stressed. They just have a few new great stories under their belt. The ceremony itself is no exception: an American high school graduation is an SNL skit, not an 80s movie. It’s punctuated with impressive mispronunciation and meandering speeches about going out into the world (even as the likelihood that we move back in with our parents increases), topped off with a few solo cups of whatever’s lying around (usually spiked seltzer). If you’re lucky, you might get a few days by a frigid lake with a dozen of the same people you’ve hung out with every weekend since the age of six. Ferris Bueller doesn’t take you on a road trip around Chicago to the Art Institute; no one gets the fake ID of one Mr. ‘McLovin’ (the goal of a fake is after all, inconspicuousness), and there’s no grand romantic music montage to an iconic 80s power ballad. When I graduated from high school in June 2018, my friends and I had a movie marathon and then showed up to a boring party for a couple of hours before walking barefoot in Central Park till dawn. It was memorable, romantic, even, but when the sun rose over the East River the next morning, I found myself unchanged. For Booksmart to be an effective movie, the girls have to go on an emotional journey paralleling their physical one across Los Angeles, but they don’t suddenly become complete, and, relatively speaking, they are who they were the week before. They’re just slightly more ready to go off into the world. Like Molly and Amy, I still had my friends, easy camaraderie with most of the kids in my year, ambitions, and something to do the next year. And like Molly and Amy, I realized that was enough.  

Image Credit: Eirien / CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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