I’m not one for controversial opinions–especially when that opinion is cynical. It isn’t better to have the dissenting opinion just because it is popular and because having the controversial viewpoint makes one look like a more unique person. However, there are times when I can’t help but have those opinions despite myself and I am never happy about it. Booksmart–a universally acclaimed R-rated high school comedy–is one of those times for me.
Booksmart takes place over the span of one day/night and follows two high school senior girls (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) who are known for their obsession with academic quality. However, the day before graduation they realize that even the kids who partied their way through high school achieved the same things academically as them, so they decide to live it up before they leave high school. A “one crazy night” type comedy in the vein of Superbad ensues with plenty of sex, drugs and further illegal activities.
What any comedy needs for it to work is chemistry between actors and energy, and this film has plenty of both. Dever and Feldstein make an enjoyable duo and their friendship never feels forced. The banter between them, for good and bad, seems improvised and the audience feels as if they are observing a real high school friendship at times. Although the two lead characters are good as their respective roles, the real hilarity and heart comes from the supporting characters. All of the supporting characters are so interesting and funny that it makes me wish the movie wasn’t centered around the two “booksmart” females. Everybody in the supporting cast is not only funnier (Billie Lourd as a classmate who randomly shows up everywhere they go), but they are given better arcs (Skyler Gisondo as the awkward kid who can’t seem to fit in anywhere) and they provide any meaning that one could gather from this movie.
The best part of Booksmart is by far the representation for women and for the LGBTQ community. The men always seem to keep the raunchy high school comedy for themselves, and it is about damn time that the girls get a film to shine. Over the past couple years, Hollywood has greenlit an increasing number of female-led high school comedy/dramas (The Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird) and even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of this one, it is still a major step forward for representation in movies of this type. It has a female writer, a female director, and Kaitlyn Dever’s character is lesbian, which is not casually explored in cinema enough given the proportion of the population that identifies with the experience. I just wish all of this made Booksmart a quality film.
When it comes to humor, the films starts off on an okay note and goes downhill from there–so much so that by the time the third act came I was amused once every five minutes (the movie is only one hour and 42 minutes). Making these dirty comedies comes with a tightrope walk that is hard to pull off: the film has to be clever while also being inappropriate. Booksmart sure as hell gets the inappropriate part, but it forgets the clever. There is a running joke for most of the film involving masturbation, as there sometimes is in these R-rated comedies, and it couldn’t be less funny. The writers think that if they simply mention raunchy subjects then the audience will fall over with laughter, but I just found the majority of these scenes painful to sit through.
The jokes also aren’t original enough to warrant the repetition; if the humor is already carbon-copied from another film, then I don’t need it beaten into my mind. One particular scene involving drug hallucination especially got on my nerves, for it seemed taken straight out of a Harold & Kumar film. It wasn’t laugh out loud hilarious then, and it is less funny now. I sat through this entire drug hallucination scene with a straight face, and in the end there wasn’t even a point or merit to the scene. I’m not saying that complete coherency is necessary in a comedy such as this, but when a scene falls as flat as this one does the least I could ask for is a purpose. Unfortunately, that is the case with this entire film. It is irreverent and ridiculous but with no constant laughter or overall motive, and the message was far better expressed in films like Lady Bird or even Eighth Grade.
I try not to dig on specific human beings too much, because I realize that they worked hard to make films like these, and even if their performance didn’t quite land the effort that they put into it should still be appreciated. That being said, I thought Beanie Feldstein overdid her character here. She was flat out annoying in more than 75 percent of her scenes, and given that she is one of the two protagonists, this dealt a heavy blow to the overall movie-going experience. Because of this, her character never develops; all the scenes where she is supposed to be relatable or funny fall flat, and some of the more serious scenes are laughable.
One of the worst scenes in the movie is a scene near the end in which the two main girls get in a publicized and dramatic fight over petty nonsense. This fight could have been resolved with one sentence, which is how many badly written conflicts are done, and both characters argue simply so later there can be a scene where they can apologize to each other and their friendship grows. The “manufactured-conflict-in-the-third-act-so-they-can-make-up-later” cliché is one of my least favorite in cinema, and Booksmart has one of the best examples of this trope.I could sit here and pick at Booksmart’s odd plot decisions until the pages run out, but I get that it’s a comedy and not everything needs to be pitch perfect. However, when the entire movie can be prevented if the characters simply used the Internet to find an address, I cannot suspend disbelief. Booksmart ends up just being another mediocre high school comedy, and that disappoints me beyond words, especially given how progressive the intent is. Any single Marvel movie is funnier than this is, and those aren’t even specifically defined as comedies. The saddest part of my experience watching this movie is that the thought at the front of my mind throughout the runtime was “When will this be over?,” and I can’t think of a more obvious indicator that a film falls flat than that.
I give Booksmart a C-.