Movie Review: Nerds Realize That Good Grades and Partying Aren’t Mutually Exclusive in the Goofy and Sweet ‘Booksmart’

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CREDIT: Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Noah Galvin, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Haraga, Stephanie Styles

Director: Olivia Wilde

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Halting and Manic Attempts at Sex and Drug Use

Release Date: May 24, 2019

Here’s what I’ve learned from Booksmart and other recent high school-set movies and TV shows: all teenagers are smart these days. Maybe there are still some lazy slackers out there, but the conventional wisdom is that they’re the exceptions, and the new normal is that it’s cool to be a good student. This comes as a bit of a shock to Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of their graduation, who have spent four years buckling down, nose to textbook, only to look up and discover that their partying classmates also have decent enough transcripts to get into prestigious schools, including one who will be attending Yale alongside Molly. Now, I can buy that partying kids are smart, but two kids from the same high school both going to the same Ivy League institution? That might be a bridge too far. Although, the elite college admissions process can feel so random that just saying “[insert Ivy League school here]” works as shorthand to get the point across for Molly’s worldview to suddenly come tumbling down.

So with that setup, Molly and Amy decide that they’ve got to make up for all the fun they’ve unnecessarily been missing out the past four years by fitting in as much partying as possible the night before their graduation ceremony. It’s a somewhat novel setup for a fairly typical plot, as much of the night is spent getting to the party instead of actually being at the party (Molly and Amy, naturally enough, don’t know their classmate’s address). As is usually the case, the plot shenanigans are quite shaggy, which is sometimes amusing and sometimes a little too random (one drug-fueled animated sequence really comes out of nowhere). The differences come in the perspectives, with a decidedly female (and nerdy) perspective in front of and behind the camera (it’s Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut). But the typical emotional climax is still what you would expect (and be satisfied by). These movies so often steadily build to codependent friends screaming at each other, and we’ve got a doozy of a blowout here. It’s effective, but it also makes me want to see that rare high school party movie about teenage friends with a perfectly healthy relationship.

Booksmart is Recommended If You Like: Superbad, Blockers, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 2000s SNL alumni

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Caps and Gowns

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Lady Bird’ Will Speak Volumes to Anyone Who Went to Catholic High School in the Early 2000s, or Anyone Who Was Ever a Teenager at Any Time

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CREDIT: Merie Wallace/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Laura Marano, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for Brief Pornographic Images, But Otherwise It Should Be PG-13 for Teens Being Teens

Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)

It makes sense that much of Lady Bird takes place in a Catholic school, as both the Church and Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut strongly advocate for the inherent dignity of the individual human being. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by “Lady Bird” (which still counts as a given name because she gave it to herself), is a high school senior in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California,” as she puts it) in 2002 (according to her, the most exciting thing about that year is that it is a palindrome) who dreams of escaping to a liberal arts college on the East Coast, despite her thoroughly average academic résumé. There is a hint that she is an underachiever (an offhand comment notes that her SAT scores are surprisingly high), but no matter the why of her being in the middle, her life struggle is still compelling. It is not so much that she has a particularly unusual personality or worldview by teenage millennial standards; she doesn’t really. Rather, she is worth paying attention to because someone bothered to tell her story.

The most filling narrative meat involves Lady Bird’s interactions with her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Anyone who has had constant drag-out cutting fights with their own mother despite both sides wanting to get along will recognize this impasse. Metcalf is an expert at navigating the fluid dynamics of parent/child relationships, while Ronan is heartbreaking as she attempts to reconcile forging her own identity with pleasing the people she cares about. And let’s not sleep on Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s dad Larry, her quiet ally making his own way through job insecurity and depression. His is a notably un-showy performance surrounded by a couple of demonstrative women, but his quiet embodiment of personal dignity still comes through loud and clear.

For a 90-minute film, Lady Bird has a remarkably deep bench, but that is just natural for a film that values dignity so highly. As Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein could have easily been the wacky sidekick, but instead she’s a supportive, goofy pal who also has her own stuff going on. Lucas Hedges slots in nicely as the first boyfriend who turns out to be closeted – his story is familiar, but deeply felt. We do not see as much of Timothée Chalamet and Odeya Rush as an alternate love interest and the popular girl, respectively, but we get enough that their characterizations go beyond “Strokes-esque rocker boy” and “airhead in advanced placement classes.” All the kids speak in the faux-profundity typical of adolescence (“very baller” is spouted in the same breath as “very anarchist), a touch that is both mocking and respectful, taking these kids to task but also treating them honestly. And special mention must also be made of Lois Smith as a nun who loves a good prank, surprisingly enough.

Gerwig fills in this world with a lot of well-observed details that give a natural sheen to post-9/11 American reality. Lady Bird rebukes a classmate for being “Republican” when bringing up concerns about terrorism in New York. The soundtrack draws from five years earlier more so than it does the hits of 2002, recognizing the eclectic nature of Gen Y (that has only grown more eclectic). Lady Bird is simply a sharply observed film about one voice and many voices, and all anyone has ever asked for is that they be given a chance for their voices to be heard.

Lady Bird is Recommended If You Like: Saved!, Adventureland, An Education

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Communion Wafers