How Olivia Wilde’s 2019 debut film ‘Booksmart’ breaks stereotypes
I came across “Booksmart (2019)” last year but only recently saw it again and something clicked with me. The trailer of the film gives an impression that it’s a high school drama. However, if you have had the chance to watch the film, you will know that it’s much more than that. Booksmart stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in the lead. Sussana Fogel, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silverman wrote the screenplay. The film is a coming of age drama about two high-school students Molly and Amy, who have been best friends throughout their school lives. On the last of day of school, Molly realizes that, while focusing on studies and aiming to get into Yale, she missed out on all the fun of high school. The film starts with the last day of school and how Molly to compensate for the lost years of fun, decides to go to a high school party finally. The film follows Molly and Amy, and a night of partying and everything that goes wrong thereafter.
Olivia Wilde’s film isn’t only about on-the-surface high school experiences. It’s also about the little nuances that most high school dramas fail to acknowledge. Molly, in spite of being an over-achiever, is also fat (by the convenient standards of American High School Movies), who, in an ordinary film, might be a victim of bullying. But Olivia Wilde starts off by breaking the first stereotype. In her film, there is a chubby protagonist who is having the time of her life, and she, voluntarily, chooses to distance herself from high school parties. Nowhere does she strike as the type that pays attention to the bullies or is affected by their snarky comments.
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Usually in this scenario, the audience brands the “other” students as undeserving of a future because of certain choices they make. But, Wilde does not fall in this trap of categorizing one bunch of students as low-lives for whom the protagonist would come off as a model student. What Wilde does here is continuing to break stereotypes. In an important scene, Molly confronts some of the bullies saying she is going to Yale while they can continue with their mockery. To her surprise, she finds out that one of the bullies is also going to Yale. While another is going to intern at Google. “You did not even care about school”, says an infuriated Molly. The girl replies, “We did not only care about school”. Wilde surprises the audience by putting it out there that a class ranker doesn’t have to do certain pre-defined things. They can be anyone, maybe even the wildest of the bunch.
The next instance where Wilde shatters the typical high school drama pigeon-hole is by destroying the gender roles. Amy who is a lesbian and has come out as one since the tenth standard has a crush on a fellow student named Ryan. Ryan portrayed by Victoria Ruesga skates, and smiles and is extremely likable. When after a series of failed events, Amy and Molly reach to their desired party, Amy immediately spots Ryan and strikes up a conversation with her.
They do karaoke together and seeing Ryan in the pool, Amy also jumps in. While enjoying the cool and serenity of the water Amy sees two people kissing and making out. She immediately realizes its Ryan and the high school heartthrob Nick. This shatters Amy because this also means there is no getting together with Ryan. Here, Wilde does break another stereotype that is in the portrayal of Ryan. Ryan wears loose t-shirts, skates throughout the schoolyard and there is certain masculinity about her. This usually translates to the fact that maybe Ryan is also into girls. This makes us realize that her masculine behavior doesn’t have anything to do with her sexual orientation. Without saying it to the face or making it preachy, Wilde conveys the simple fact about choices and expressions.
Read our review of Booksmart (2019) Here
In the film, we come across the character of Gigi played by Billie Lourd who wears these outrageous fashionable clothes and somewhat matches the description of the ‘dumb blonde’. As by now, you have probably figured out Wilde does not stick to this stereotype as much as she likes breaking them. Gigi who is dating Jared – the self-absorbed high school ‘whacko’ is completely neurotic. She snorts her vitamins as she believes that snorting makes it more effective. Gigi is weird and crazy and when Molly asks Jared who has a crush on Molly that why is he dating Gigi, he says she is one of the most loyal people he knows.
If you have seen enough high school films, you would know that the fashionistas of high schools are always portrayed as these one-dimensional characters whose main goal in life is to date hot guys. For example, the infamous Regina George from Mean Girls, who is, for the lack of a better term, of questionable judgment. Gigi is not like that. She meets Amy for the first time says she loves her and as mentioned earlier is fiercely loyal. This again turns out to be another instance where without doing much Wilde successfully destroys the ‘dumb blonde’ high school cliche.
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Another very essential factor that Wilde shows in the film, is the experience of sex. High school sex is usually romanticized to the point where it does not seem natural. Usually, there are these steamy scenes and kisses, where the audience only sees the pleasure that is associated with the act of sex. The depiction is far from correct. Usually, sex is awkward – especially for young boys and girls its more of an experiment. When Amy after a fight with Molly enters the bathroom and starts to strike up a conversation with Hope who happens to be in the bathroom things heat up and Amy and Hope start to make out. After taking each other’s clothes off when Amy and Hope try to have sex, Amy gets nervous and pukes on Hope. As expected, Hope is disgusted and asks Amy to get out of the bathroom. This is a very realistic portrayal of intimacy. It is not always visually pleasing and does not always go according to plan. The fact that Wilde shows the act of puking without sanitizing it even for a second shows her dedication as a director.
Nowhere in Booksmart (2019) does Wilde give in to the stereotype of high school drama. With every sequence, she questions what we think about young boys and girls in school. She takes special care to ensure that all the characters have flesh and bones and dimensions to them. No one is ditsy or crazy, no one is better than the other. These are just human beings with different choices and priorities and they all have their flaws. The film does not have a major crisis wherein the characters realize what they were doing was wrong or their ways are wrong. Wilde poignantly, tells the story of a few kids who are flawed and just humans. She does not preach anything or try to tell us partying is bad. She is just trying to portray the high school experience as non-judgmentally as she can.