Review: Booksmart

Review: Booksmart

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 31, May, 2019

IS A POSITIVE MESSAGE enough to make a movie worthwhile?

This question has been spinning in my mind since the credits rolled for the showing of Booksmart that I attended earlier this week. To clarify, is it sufficient for a film to have something positive to say to, or on behalf of, a group, or to society as a whole, in order to be worthy of recommendation?

Would, for instance, a wholesome and positive, or defiant and principled, stand on some moral issue be enough to excuse some, say, slapdash writing, poor characterisation, dodgy design, or even an obnoxious palette?

Well, Booksmart could well function as a test case for this discussion as it has both sides of the equation in significant quantities and, depending on which side one falls one, this factor is essential is deciding whether or not it can indeed be recommended.

Constituting the directing debut of Tron actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart stars Kaiytlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as two high-achieving California high-school students on the cusp of graduation. When intense valedictorian Molly (Feldstein) overhears her more composed classmates talking behind her back she and her nervous best pal Amy (Dever) resolve to make the last night before they leave high school one they’ll never forget. We follow Amy and Molly throughout the night as they go to different parties and engage in all kind of red solo-cupped rambunctious shenanigans and malarkey that seem to be the exclusive purview of teenagers in American movies.

To return to the first part of the opening conundrum, to me at least, the messaging in this movie is really good. We’re shown a full range of different people getting along, gender stereotypes are the object of ridicule, the film is pro-LGBT without being obnoxious about it, with lesbian Amy and the other gay characters in the movie highlighted but not exploited, and there are lots of really cool notes about looking forward to your future, seizing the day, living, laughing, and loving, and pretty much everything else that ever adorned an unoriginal suburban white family’s walls in the form of motivational posters.

If anything, Booksmart can be marked down for trying just a little too hard to be right-on, resulting in a lack of a main, central point.

Legitimately, in my view, I don’t think there’s a single bit of the moral message of Booksmart that I don’t think is handled well and delivered with sincerity…

Which would be fine, and might be enough for some people, but I’m not here to evaluate Booksmart for its moral content, I have this column to tell you what I think of it as a film.

Which is a shame, as this is where I have to put my cards on the table...

Because as a film, Booksmart is a complete and utter dumpster fire.

It all starts with the script that appears to have been assembled using the cuttings left on the floor from every other gross-out teen comedy made since American Pie’s Jim mounted the titular pastry. It mashes together a series of drawn-out attempts at humour, one of which lands once but is then worked to death while vainly attempting to support the rest of this tawdry, hollow nonsense, with some really self-important, ‘woe is me’ moments thrown in of some of the most privileged people in the world being sad because things aren’t perfect. It is enough to want to use copies of the script the next time you want to go clay pigeon shooting.

Everything about the direction, colour palate, sound design, and the overall feel and presentation of the movie feels cheap and paper thin – not in an edgy, indie kind of way but in a cynical, ‘this’ll be enough for the kind of thickos who go see this kind of crap’ insulting kind of way.

Where it isn’t drab, formulaic, and boring, it’s wincingly obnoxious and pleased with how it looks. Put simply, Booksmart looks like watching a rerun of Superbad (the much better movie from which Booksmart steals its gender-flipped idea of two dorky pals on a night out) through a series of Instagram filters designed by the interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to break the spirits of hardened terrorists. It’s painful! 

As for performances, there’s nothing redeemable. Our leads start off being completely unlikable and unfunny and, despite the pretence of character development, end up staying exactly how they are. 

Token nods are made to learning lessons or growing as people but this is all forgotten by the end credits and nobody has learned a damn thing. Feldstein’s Molly is what would happen if a budget version of Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was strapped to a chair and shown nothing but Amy Schumer stand-up for about a week-and-a-half while Dever’s Amy appears to be attempting to play every part Ellen Page ever played in her career at the same time, but doing so from inside a fridge full of My Chemical Romance albums. Each and every one of their supporting cast is stock, offensively token, and come to resemble more of a spawning point for enemies in a right-wing propaganda video game than fully-developed characters in their own right. 

I could go on about how the Booksmart is both far too long and manages to feel rushed or about how the ‘clever’ camera tricks in its cinematography is so hackneyed that even a first-year film student, armed only with a packet of Marlboro Reds, a handheld camera, and a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, would consider it beneath them, but I think I’ve made my point and no more shovelling of dirt is going to make the unmarked grave I have dug for Booksmart as a movie any deeper. 

I freely admit that my opinion on Booksmart sets me at odds with the majority of the other critics whose reviews I have seen. Where I see a poorly-written, obnoxious, self-satisfied, dated, load of dross – they seem to have seen a funny, endearing, and emotionally satisfying film that gave them a case of the warm fuzzies. All the aggregators, main film publications, and occasional opinion-havers seem to agree with each other and disagree with me. That’s fine, I’m no stranger to having an opinion that is a little unorthodox or different from the majority and I’m more than happy to leave my detractors to their view provided they extend the same courtesy to me.

What I will say is that I think most of the positive reviews of Booksmart are motivated by what it says rather than what it is as a film. I know enough about the technical aspects of making movies to see that corners have been cut and careless mistakes have been made to know that it is, at the very least, a deeply troubled film and so I cannot concede that it is any good, in material terms, whatsoever. However, as previously mentioned, I do like what it is trying to say and I suspect my peers who are also lucky enough to do this job do so too.

In conclusion, I might be wrong. My fellow reviewers may genuinely believe that they’ve discovered the woke version of some American teen hit and that the sluggish box office takings have more to do with attitudes towards female-dominated films and the like than anything wrong with the picture itself ­­– but I just can’t shake the feeling that they’re prioritising politics over production. That’s fine – and a perfectly justifiable way to measure a film – but it’s not for me. In my view, it doesn’t matter if a film tries to be good, it must also be good, and Booksmart… isn’t. 

So, to answer the question that I started this review with, namely ‘is a good message enough to make a film good?’, my answer is no and Booksmart is my case in point.

 

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