A fun film weighed down by unrealistic expectations
There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to increasing diversity in TV and films. The first could be described as the opposite of whitewashing – casting actors of colour in roles as white or (or ambigious) characters, gender-swapping roles, and so on. The second is to expand the range of stories you tell so as to actually reflect the lived experiences of previously marginalised people. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you which I prefer. While almost any and all representation can be helpful, we’re not going to get very far by just swapping out actors in stories written from and for a straight, white and male perspective.
Booksmart seems to want to have it both ways. The first half, maybe even two-thirds, of the film is so heavily laden with tropes that if you read a name-redacted script you’d think you were dealing with a typical teen movie from the mid-noughties to early 2010s. Many feminists are name-checked, but the exploits and endeavours of its characters are a cross between Mean Girls and Superbad. Geeky girls try to get to a party, about which one of them has a bad feeling. There are crushes acknowledged and secret, and the ultimate aim is to get the girl. There is something to be said for the idea that this is just a universal teen experience; there is nothing exclusively male to these stories, it just so happens that they have thus far only been told through the eyes of boys. But how much are we really gaining by seeing them through girls’ eyes?
The structure and beats of the movie cannot in any way be called original. I’m going to get into spoiler territory here, but honestly it’s so predictable it barely counts. Girls go through varying ‘hilarious’ exploits on their way to find a party they just have to get to because their crushes are going, and they don’t want to have left high school never having partied through the night. Crushes welcome them, building their expectations, only for this to be proven false as the crushes get with each other not our protagonists. The protagonists then fall out due to the ‘pushy’ nature of one of them, only to be brought together by wild antics. They realise that the person they’re really into is the previously dismissed side character (throwing in an instance of the much-problematised ‘person is only mean to you because they fancy you’ trope). An extra element that is fast becoming a trope is that the feminist lead is shown that she isn’t as woke as she thinks she is through the kind gesture of a girl she dismissed as mindlessly sexually promiscuous. Honestly, there is not much more to the film that I’ve summarised in a few sentences. I don’t want to be too down on it, as I did basically enjoy it. It has some giggles, and it is great to see a lesbian character on screen who gets to express all that teenage heartache that goes with falling for a woman who ends up with a man. Which is actually a different kind of experience than we’ve seen before!
But the idea that Booksmart is Oscar worthy is laughable. If all you’ve got going to mark you out from American Pie is female leads and using ‘Malala’ as a safe word, you’re really not a contender. Maybe that’s a little flippant of me, as Booksmart does have some genuinely tender moments usually absent from teen movies, but to suggest that it has the complexity or sophistication to stand alongside the likes of Parasite or Marriage Story is misguided.
It may not even be as feminist as it wants to be. The overall message is that Beanie Feldstein’s character was so obsessed with women’s empowerment (she is essentially a younger version of Leslie Knope) that she dismisses the value of the people, even the women, around her because they did not fit her idea of what women should be like. It is only when she puts her activism aside and plays beer pong that she truly enjoys life and comes to see the worth of her peers. ‘I see you’ she announces in her final speech. You could almost add ‘now I have removed by feminist blinkers’. The film’s casting is tokenistically diverse, with an amusing if slightly stereotyped performance from Jessica Williams, but as the film doesn’t really go into depth about anyone’s experiences, you can’t really expect them to take an intersectional approach. Kaitlyn Dever’s performance is the best, and her character sadly under-explored, given the hints we have at her experiences (out for two years, daughter of conservative Christians, etc). Feldstein and Dever both give solid performances (and honestly who isn’t going to give something a try just because Feldstein is in it?), but Dever has more to work with, while Feldstein carries the more comedic moments. Some claim that Billie Lourde has been overlooked for Best Supporting Actress, but while she brings energy and enthusiasm, her role is one we’d expect from the poorer seasons of Skins, not an Oscar contender.
I’ve written before about the strange sense of entitlement surrounding the film’s production and marketing. As if financial success and accolades are deserved simply because it was written by and featured women. We were told that we had to see this film if we wanted better representation in cinema. Frankly, the representation Booksmart offers isn’t that great. There is a strong whiff of white feminism surrounding it. If you want to be considered groundbreaking maybe break some ground instead of rehashing stories we’ve already seen.
The real question is why does it matter if Booksmart has been snubbed? It’s doing as much as we can expect of it, filling the teen movie niche with jokes about female masturbation as well as male. Again I’m perhaps being flippant. I am genuinely pleased and refreshed by the opportunity to see jokes and stories that are that bit more reflective of my own experience as a teenager. We all need light films to switch off to and simply enjoy. It doesn’t need to be more ambitious than that. We need films for teenage girls, and women remembering themselves as teenage girls. What’s not to like? Let’s just not pretend it’s more deep than it really is. Let Booksmart be Booksmart and stop loading it with unjustified expectations. If you want to see a film that offers great representation, original stories, and truly was snubbed, go watch Hustlers.
Have I been too harsh on Booksmart? It was a fun film that would benefit from being watched with more realistic expectations; a good romp with laughs and sweet moments. What other films do you think were snubbed from the Oscars, and which female-driven movies should I check out next? Let me know in the comments, and thank for reading!