Since Booksmart arrived in theaters two weeks ago, fans (and foes) of the movie, on “film Twitter” and elsewhere, have been having an extended series of arguments about the film, one that’s extended beyond what’s on screen. Namely, that Booksmart, opening opposite the Disney blockbuster, Aladdin, was seen to have underperformed at the box office, earning only $6.9 million in its opening weekend.
Booksmart is the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde. The product of a years-long writing and re-writing process that led to four credited screenwriters, the show is something of a female-driven, feminist answer to Superbad.
The film stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as Amy and Molly, a pair of high school super-achievers who have spent their high school years studying all of the time and partying none of it. Days before graduation, they discover that all of the partiers at their school, who they’ve long held in contempt, are also headed to elite colleges. So they decide to spend their final night before graduation making up for lost time, by attending a big bash.
Booksmart is the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde.
It’s a hilarious, groundbreaking comedy that made a whole lot of people feel seen, beyond making them laugh. Or, it’s an unrealistic, privileged, blinkered take on the high school movie, from a director who’s a wealthy white woman uninterested in telling stories of anyone who isn’t from her exact demographic.
A Revisionist Teen Movie, But Not the Best One
My view of Booksmart,as I laid out in my review, is mixed-to-positive. I like the performances, and Wilde’s assured direction, and was especially taken with Dever as a lesbian teenager, who’s out, proud, and accepted by her loved ones, but still hasn’t mastered the part about actually hooking up with girls. Which is pretty much the predicament normally faced by nerdy males, both on and off screen.
On the other hand, it’s not that funny, it fails to build its laughs the way Superbad did, and aspects of this type of story were better-handled by recent movies like Edge of Seventeen, Eighth Grade, and Blockers.
I realize, though, that as a 40-year-old straight white guy who’s been out of high school for more than 20 years, Booksmart wasn’t exactly made with me specifically in mind.
“I Feel Seen”
Booksmart‘s fan club may not be a large one, but it’s a passionate and loud one. Many who have seen the film have praised it to the skies, both as an entertainment, and for what it does in terms of representation. The film’s two heroines are a lesbian woman and an overweight woman, neither of whom is defined by that specific thing, and both of whom move through life with confidence and grace. Moreover, they’re both nerds. And the population of women who remember being outcasts in high school, it would appear, is quite a significant one.
Others have argued, and I agree, that there’s no way on earth that an elite high school could exist in which none of the students know until the final week where anyone else is going to college. I know my senior year I was asked my college decision roughly five times per day from September through May.
Another piece, from Popula, somewhat ludicrously, calls Booksmart “A High School Movie for Biden Voters,” even though its protagonists have actual bumper stickers of a different Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren. That review keeps alive the unblemished record that every single piece that uses the phrase “virtual signaling” is both stupid and wrong.
Then there’s this one:
We have here a repeat of the conversation that’s been had about Sofia Coppola for her entire career: She’s a rich white lady, who makes movies about other rich white ladies with rich white lady problems. Writers are told to write what they know, and that’s what she, and Wilde, have done.
I wish we could have more movies that center around women of color as leads. If someone made a Booksmart-style teen movie in which the leads were women of color, I’d absolutely see it, and there’s a good chance I’d like it more than the actual Booksmart.
But in the meantime, I’m not exactly sure what it is that Olivia Wilde did wrong here. Should she not have made a movie? Or promoted said movie? I don’t believe it’s a valid critique of a film to say that the director should have made a different film, or a different director should have made this film.
Overall, Booksmart has suffered the curse of a lot of woke entertainment. Nothing against woke entertainment – I’m usually the one who loves it and defends it – but a lot of it falls into the trap of being hated by conservatives for being woke, and hated by the even-further-woke for not being woke enough.
The Business Side
As is often the case with movies these days, there’s been a lot of armchair punditry about the business side of Hollywood, in relation to Booksmart’s sluggish box office performance.
Various theories have been put forth: Booksmart was ruined by opening against Aladdin. Annapurna Pictures, in response to positive early reviews and an enthusiastic reception at South by Southwest, gave the film a wide release, when putting it out incrementally may have been the wiser move. Others have speculated that the opening of the film on Netflix in international markets had led to early piracy, which hurt the film at the box office.
I think the more likely scenario is that the film lacks stars, and that Olivia Wilde’s name as director wasn’t enough to draw crowds. And even if it had performed at its absolute peak at the box office, there’s no way it was beating out Aladdin in their respective opening weekends.
The Booksmart Legacy
Therefore, there’s a good chance that Booksmart will go down as one of those films that’s beloved among those who love it, with the understanding that it wasn’t a big box office hit, with its financial performance becoming less and less a part of the story over time.
In the meantime, Booksmart may have made a ton less money than Aladdin, but give it this: it’s certainly led to much more interesting conversations and debates. When was the last time you had an argument about the Will Smith Aladdin, or even thought about it?
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.