• Judging by Cover: Grace Hadland Reviews Booksmart

    I almost left the theater halfway through Booksmart but stayed for the lesbian scene I knew was coming. I was pleased to see the love interest sporting white Chuck Taylors (a high school gay classic), and the ritual untying of those shoes while getting it on: the costume designer seems to have googled “lesbian fashion.” The character of Hope (Diana Silvers) resembles the love child of David Crosby and Milla Jochavich’s character in Dazed and Confused, sporting the Chucks with a suede fringe jacket (high school movies can’t seem to resist a little bite out of Linklater’s classic). Hope teases her classmate Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) until Amy fights back with a surprising kiss (her first). Hope laughs and smirks, then kisses back. This clunky, sweet, sexy encounter is perhaps the film’s only moment of authenticity. All others had me cringing.

    This new high school flick from actress-as-director Olivia Wilde attempts to subvert the clichéd night-before-graduation-narrative, but falls limply back into what it had aimed to avoid. The main characters, Amy and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are studious seniors who, filled with regret the night before graduation after finding out that even the kids who spent their teen years partying were also admitted to prestigious universities, decide to let their hair down for a first and last hurrah. Molly is comically horrified when the stoner who was held back a few grades reveals that even he got a job at Google. Humbled, Molly gets a lesson in “don’t judge a book by its cover,” which becomes the overarching ethos of the movie (another trip into cliché). Later reveals in this vein include: the principal moonlighting as an Uber driver (why would a public school principal need a second job, right?); the mean hot girl known for giving road head actually just enjoys blow jobs; the rich jock is actually down to earth (he just wants friends); the skater dyke is in fact, heterosexual. Aside from the few instances of genuine adolescent naivety found in the actors’ desire to amuse, it’s all boilerplate redemption narrative.

    Everyone in Booksmart is trying to be “good.” The characters face hardly any conflict; the film teases the possibility of such and swiftly pulls back. No one is called any cruel names. No one faces a difficult situation. Amy’s evangelical parents in fact, seem overly supportive of her homosexuality. In this fictive high school the meanest thought is that these quirky nerds are too smart, too successful for their own good.  What they are all so smart about is … never explicated. Not only is the screenwriting full of holes and depth, but it’s representative of an insidious trend in contemporary culture in which politics dominate the space of art — correctness being more important than moral ambiguity, nuance, messiness. Tidiness becomes paramount.

    The “utopia” of Booksmart is boring, unsexy, and ultimately hypocritical in how it centers on the very things that are actual sources of oppression: the government institutions both girls aspire to work in, the elitist educational institutions and corporations that determine the students’ notion of “success” in life. The film clips along without any criticism of such institutions — and, for that matter, no criticism of anything at all (not one mention of class).

    Of course, it would be disingenuous if a teen comedy addressed its own capitalist propaganda, since progressive ideals and Hollywood blockbusters are ultimately incompatible. Being so saturated with “wokeness,” the ideals “female-fronted” films like Booksmart claim to promote are rendered hollow, no more than thinly veiled corporate marketing strategies. The PC song and dance is just gratuitous enough that you might not catch the big business product placement sprinkled throughout the film. “Let’s call a Lyft” is a common refrain; “iPad” and “Google” are in there a number of times too. Woke buzzwords are peppered throughout in a similar fashion. As if a bleep machine is being operated like on cable, “hooker” becomes “sex worker”; “butch” becomes “masculine gender expression.” In these moments the characters so clearly become a conduit for the woke screenwriter: a white liberal Baby Boomer trying to save her career and impress her daughter.

    With all the focus on representation, movie-goers are distracted by who is being seen rather than who is being heard, and, perhaps more insidiously, who is profiting. It’s not that I expected much more from this movie: it’s the unsurprising product of a capitalist industry feeding off whatever palatable trend they can get their hands on — right now, it happens to be feminism and identity politics. It’s that I don’t appreciate being pandered to and I’d like to think the movie-going masses are smart. But they keep us dumb so we pay our $17 and forget about this movie so we’ll go to the next one that’s just the same.