Sometimes being funny is enough

Booksmart promised a fun and female-driven coming-of-age film and, in that regard, it absolutely delivers. The protagonists, Molly and Amy, are two ambitious nerd-girls who are ready to leave high school behind. When Molly finds out that the kids who partied still got into good colleges, she and Amy decide to go to their first high school party the night before graduation.

After seeing a short trailer for this film, I knew exactly what I wanted from it: I wanted great music, I wanted to laugh and I wanted the feeling of adventure that coming-of-age films promise. Those boxes were ticked for me. The soundtrack is a perfect mix of fun and empowering, featuring the likes of Lizzo, Princess Nokia and Anderson Paak. The chemistry between Amy and Molly drives the film and makes for hilariously awkward moments such as when they accidentally play porn aloud in their teacher’s Uber. For me, the funniest cast member by far is Billie Lourd; her performance as Gigi was completely wild and somehow still believable.

Where coming-of-age films often fail is realism. From my experience of secondary school, 18-year-olds are not pushing each other into lockers, and the ‘nerds’ aren’t always helpless and afraid. Snide comments are a lot more frequent than Glee-esque slushy throwing, and the outsiders often don’t give a fuck what other people think by the time graduation rolls around.

In this area, Booksmart succeeds for me. The dynamic between the graduating class feels so accurate. While the people in your school year annoy you endlessly, there’s a bitter-sweetness in saying goodbye to those you grew up with and leaving behind that familiarity that only exists in school. During her graduation speech at the end of the film, Molly admits that she felt superior to her classmates for years: “I didn’t before, but I see you now.” She realises that she stereotyped them the same way that they did her and feels connected to them for the first time.

The lesbian representation in this film is a pleasant surprise. I didn’t know that Amy would be gay before watching and her journey is one of the highlights of the film. Coming-out narratives, while important, have long been the dominant LGBT+ stories that we have seen on screen. Booksmart deals with issues that are so common for LGBT+ teens yet so rarely discussed. Amy has been out for two years but hasn’t kissed a girl because she “doesn’t know what [she’s] doing”. Her sexual naivety is so realistic within an education system that skips over LBGT+ experiences, and the way it is discussed openly will be helpful for queer young people who feel the same. Amy also deals with the age-old problem: how do I know if my crush likes girls? This is an issue that so many WLW face, yet, this is the first time I’ve ever seen it discussed in a film.

Booksmart avoids all the played-out LGBT+ cliches. Amy doesn’t die, her parents accept her and she isn’t bullied – basically, no one cares. It is important for there to be representation of happy, comfortable queer people and this film provides that.

Women should be able to watch versions of themselves be funny and make mistakes on screen the way that men have since the beginning of cinema

I wish I could say that representations of race in this film were as good. Women of colour are celebrated frequently, but rarely actually appear, with the exception of the stereotypical ‘cool teacher’ Mrs Fine who drives the girls to a party and has a fling with a 20-year-old student. The way that Molly and Amy worship their black teacher is an example of the tokenism in Booksmart: women of colour are hailed as idols but never given any depth. The constant references to the likes of Malala Yousafzai and Rosa Parks only serve as reminders of the lack of women of colour in most coming-of-age films. Sure, it’s great that Molly and Amy celebrate all kinds of women, but why can’t all kinds of women be cast in these roles?

There’s also the fact that no one speaks like this in real life. While the rest of the dialogue is fairly realistic, these references feel like a thinly veiled attempt to show intersectional feminism without actually embodying it. The girls using “Malala” as a code word to demand the other’s support doesn’t educate anyone. The way that they use her name has nothing to do with the Pakistani activist and instead comes off as a cringe-worthy attempt from the writers to show how ‘woke’ they are.

However, not every film has to be groundbreaking for feminism. Women should be able to watch versions of themselves be funny and make mistakes on screen the way that men have since the beginning of cinema. It is refreshing to see two empowered young women star in this genre. But marketing this as a feminist masterpiece because it passes the Bechdel test and makes forced references to feminist icons hurts the film more than it helps it. I’m glad I didn’t see too much about this element of the film before watching. Had I seen the full trailer or read reviews that promised “the feminist comedy we’ve been waiting for”, my expectations would have been too high and I might have enjoyed the film less.

Booksmart’s weaker moments are when it is trying to be something that it is not. What it actually is – a light-hearted, funny and heart-warming movie – is more than enough.