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Booksmart

Booksmart

Olivia Wilde (2019)

Here’s a little coming-of-age movie that garnered some $7 million during its opening weekend—not exactly a summer blockbuster, but if anybody was anticipating that, they shouldn’t have released it opposite Disney’s live-action Aladdin, which was primed to dominate the Memorial Day weekend box office. But the film by first-time director Olivia Wilde is the most critically acclaimed movie currently in theaters, with a 98% rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.com. It is notable that audience ratings for the film are somewhat lower than those of critics, with only 76% positive ratings. I’m always curious about such discrepancies, so I took a look at some of those audience reviews.

What was immediately clear is that viewers either loved Booksmartor hated it, with most of the reviews being either five stars or one star, with very little in between. Most of the haters who actually gave a reason for their evaluation (rather than simply saying the film was terrible) complained about two things: Many condemned the film for vulgar language and raunchiness. I was a bit confused by this complaint, since the film is clearly rated R, and clearly states that this rating is given “for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking—all involving teens.” To get this warning and then be shocked, shocked, that the “F” word is used throughout the film, and that sexual activities are implied (though not depicted) seems somewhat disingenuous. It is possible that these negative reactions are a response to the fact that in this particular end-of-high-school party movie, it’s a pair of young women out to party (one of whom is “out” as a lesbian), rather than Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. In any case, I didn’t find these criticisms convincing.

More legitimate are the complaints that the movie is essentially plotless, or that there isn’t much of a plot to speak of. It’s quite true that the film is episodic, that it moves from one set piece to another, with only the slightest thread connecting all the scenes. It is true that plot is not the movie’s strongest asset. It seems likely that one of the reasons for this is that there are no fewer than four writers listed as responsible for the screenplay: Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern (TV’s Good Girls and Black-ish), Sarah Haskins (also of TV’s Good Girls and Black-ish) and Katy Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic). The reason for this eclectic pedigree is apparently that the screenplay bounced around Hollywood for several years, and was tweaked along the way several times, before finally seeing the light of day in Wilde’s breakout film.

The fact is that Booksmart belongs to a genre of film not widely admired for careful plotting. It’s an epic-night high school party movie that has its roots in films from AmericanGraffitithrough Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dazed and Confused to Superbad.Tropes common to this particular film genre abound in Wilde’s film as well: protagonists who don’t quite seem to belong with the rest of their high school crowd; a huge blowout end-of-the year/end of high school party; an obligatory drug experiment; awkward romantic/sexual situations; a blow-up fight between best friends; high school weirdo who turns out to be misunderstood; clueless parents; a climactic graduation day speech—yes, all the elements are there. But Wilde gives these tropes new life with a bit of a twist.

The episodic nature of the plot is also characteristic of an even older, archetypal form of story to which Booksmart belongs: it’s a quest story, with the protagonists searching for the site of the party that they believe will complete them as human beings and fulfill their wishes by uniting them with the people they’ve had crushes on throughout their high school careers. And, like the medieval questing knight, the ultimate reward of the quest turns out to be self-knowledge.

The story follows the adventures of Molly (Beanie Feldstein of Ladybird), the alpha female and class president of the school, and her BFF Amy (Kaitlyn Dever from TV’s Last ManStanding), who spends much of her time in Molly’s shadow but is just as smart and focused as her friend. The two of them have devoted the last four years to study and ensuring they graduate at the top of their class so they can get into Ivy League colleges and secure a golden future. Things seem to have worked out for them, since Molly is heading for Yale while Amy will be going to Columbia after graduation.

And so they take a smug view of their classmates who have wasted so much of their high school careers in partying and carrying on. In a scene that sets the tone of the movie early on, Molly overhears three of what she considers her class’s losers talking about her in a critical way, and responds with the classic nerd comeback to the “cool kids,” that she’ll be at Yale next year achieving her dream while they will be stuck with the dead-end futures they deserve. But the scene doesn’t end as Molly—and the audience—might expect. Turns out one of these kids is also going to Yale, another to Stanford, and the third has already been recruited to write code for Google. In disbelief, Molly stammers “But, you guys don’t care about school…” and gets the answer: “No, we just don’t only care about school.”

It’s a life-changing revelation for Molly. She confronts Amy with the news: all this time she had believed she had to choose between schoolwork or fun. Now she realizes it was not an either/or proposition. “They did both,” she tells Amy. “We’re the only assholes who did one.” The two of them do the only thing they can: They are going to fit four years of partying into one giant blowout party thrown by Molly’s vice-president Nick (Mason Gooding  from TV’s Ballers), whom she’s had a secret crush on for years). Amy’s secret crush, a skateboarding chick named Ryan (played by Victoria Ruesga, and actual skateboarder from North Hollywood) will also be there, and even asks Amy if she’s coming to the party. There’s only one problem: the party is at Nick’s aunt’s house, and they don’t know where that is.

Thus the movie becomes the quest for the great party. Molly and Amy travel through the night, crashing lesser parties (a pathetic champagne party on a yacht, a mystery-game party hosted by the school’s drama geeks) and finding unanticipated complications at Nick’s party when they finally get there, all the time finding out more about themselves than they may have bargained for.

Feldstein and Dever make a believable and sympathetic buddy team, but the film’s unusual twist is that there are really no villains in the story: the other students that Molly and Amy saw as adversaries are just as sympathetic—the two had simply never really known them. In this the film is probably more like American Graffiti than any other coming-of-age, last-night-of-high-school movie. Some of the supporting characters in the film turn in memorable performances as well, most notably Skyler Gisondo (from The Amazing Spiderman) as Jared, a rich kid nobody likes, and Billie Lourd  (daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) as Gigi, a strange party girl who seems to turn up everywhere.

The movie is a clever and surprisingly fresh comedy. It’s been heralded as thecoming-of-age movie for Generation Z. I’m not sure I’d go that far. This is, after all, basically an all-white high school in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb with a student body all of whom seem wealthy enough to attend Ivy League colleges. Not exactly working-class heroes. And with the recent bruhaha about wealthy parents bribing their kids’ ways into elite colleges, the “party all you want and still get into Yale” theme might be a bit tone deaf. But it’s a pleasant enough comedy if you don’t think about it too hard. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

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LostInTheQuagmircover

When Sir Galahad arrives in Camelot to fulfill his destiny, the presence of Lancelot’s illegitimate son disturbs Queen Guinevere. But the young knight’s vision of the Holy Grail at Pentecost inspires the entire fellowship of the Round Table to rush off in quest of Christendom’s most holy relic. But as the quest gets under way, Sir Gawain and Sir Ywain are both seriously wounded, and Sir Safer and Sir Ironside are killed by a mysterious White Knight, who claims to impose rules upon the quest. And this is just the beginning. When knight after knight turns up dead or gravely wounded, sometimes at the hands of their fellow knights, Gildas and Merlin begin to suspect some sinister force behind the Grail madness, bent on nothing less than the destruction of Arthur and his table. They begin their own quest: to find the conspirator or conspirators behind the deaths of Arthur’s good knights. Is it the king’s enigmatic sister Morgan la Fay? Could it be Arthur’s own bastard Sir Mordred, hoping to seize the throne for himself? Or is it some darker, older grievance against the king that cries out for vengeance? Before Merlin and Gildas are through, they are destined to lose a number of close comrades, and Gildas finds himself finally forced to prove his worth as a potential knight, facing down an armed and mounted enemy with nothing less than the lives of Merlin and his master Sir Gareth at stake.

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