The coming of age story is old as time itself. It typically involves people coming to terms with things, usually young people. In the Greek Myths it usually involved fighting some deadly beast, usually through some wacky adventure, in books it involves a lot of long descriptions of looking out at things and realizing stuff, in the 1980’s it involved surviving High School, which is typically less terrifying than whatever they were fighting in the Greek Myths. Booksmart, the coming of age comedy that came out this past summer, directed by Olivia Wilde, didn’t really break any new ground when it came to coming of age stories, but it did it well.
As with the current grand coming of age tradition, Booksmart focuses on Molly and Amy, two young women who are about to graduate from High School and move to college. They spent most of their high school studying instead partying, thus making them… well, book smart, I guess. Hey, that’s the title! Anyway, the believe themselves better than their peers, having dedicated so much of their time to being smart instead of doing such high school things like partying, hooking up, and whatever you young kids are up to these days. Or have always been up to, despite what older generations would like to pretend.
After realizing that their extra studying and non-partying lifestyle didn’t really get them much advantage – all of the partying kids got into great schools, too – they realize they need to blow it all in one, glorious night of partying before college, because I guess they don’t yet realize there’s also a lot of partying college, too? Regardless, what follows is the traditional coming of age storyline where kids try to cram as much partying into one glorious night of partying. Obviously, hijinks ensue.
One of the things I enjoyed about this movie is that it’s not really mean-spirited. I know that’s kind of faint praise, but there’s an easy way this movie could have gone: Molly and Amy spent all night trying to find the party, but couldn’t find their way because everyone was excluding them. But in reality, it’s Molly and Amy who are both the antagonists and protagonists of the movie. That ties into the overall theme of the movie itself, which is that no way is the best way: sometimes you simply have to be yourself.
The girls consider themselves better than most of the other people in school because they worked very hard to get to where they are by ignoring most everything except each other. They had these grand plans that involved grand things, and it would be very easy to have a movie that involved a bunch of students mocking them. But everyone in this cool is kind of nice and there’s a feeling more of “wow, I got this straight laced student to comets my party” rather than “hey, look at the nerds trying to drink.”
That makes the movie stronger, in my opinion. Often in coming of age stories, there’s an outside force that makes the protagonist change. Maybe it’s the death of a family member. Maybe it’s rampant Godzilla attacks. This is a very loose genre, so it make sense that coming of age can encompass anything. In this case, it’s the girls’ themselves and their relationship that is the only thing that’s really toxic. Molly is kind of controlling as she sees where not only her life should be going, but Amy’s as well. Amy just kind of wants to explore, and that means finding a world outside of just what Molly wants. We don’t need the random jock or dudebro to complicate things. We just need to focus on these two young women figuring things out.
Often, that’s the case, and that’s what makes this movie extremely relatable in ways other movies aren’t. Sure, not all of us have forsaken all outside contact to focus on grades, but we all have that thing we think we need to focus on, and sometimes that can mean forgetting about what’s around us. This is illustrated well when Molly and Amy finally get to the party. For most of the movie we’re lead to believe they’re on this grand adventure, but they’re still focused their one thing: getting to the party and romantic relationships they’ll have with their secret crushes Ryan and Nick, respectively. Olivia Wilde also plays with audience expectations by bringing us along with the ride. Hey, this is a coming of age story where two people learn to loosen up and then get to be with their secret crushes the last days of high school! Then, she masterfully pulls the rug out from under us but subverting all of that.
That’s what makes the movie so masterful and rise above the typical coming of age story. The movie manages to put us in the shoes of Molly and Amy: we want the plan that we’ve come to expect. Then, we don’t get it, and we can be angry, we can’t really be mad. What have we come to expect? And the best part is: it’s not malicious, it’s not evil, it’s really just a result of how they’ve constructed their lives. They spent all this time planning, so they lost out on some things. There’s room to change, sure, but they lost on this moment.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this particular movie: I think sometimes we have too many plans of how our lives are going to turn out. It’s something that’s in a ton of stories since the dawn of time. But I think this one just manages to go the extra step. It manages to hit those themes a little better because there’s no real outside force stopping Molly and Amy: It’s just them, having to learn what’s stopping them. And it does it in a really heartfelt way.
Hamlet T. Wondercat Says: