There is zero chance that every kid in a striving liberal high school in Richville, U.S.A. wouldn’t know, almost moment by moment, exactly who is going to what college as the acceptances roll in. The affluent American high school is a hothouse environment in which the level of mutual intimacy is extreme—more intimate than most will ever know in such a large group of people ever again; you’ll be in class together year after year, visit one another’s houses, know one another’s parents and how they think, see every freaking pimple come and go.
But somehow in the movie Booksmart this is not the case. The years of high school have gone by, graduation is tomorrow, and the goody-good class president and valedictorian Molly (who is headed to Yale) and her best friend Amy (Columbia) have somehow failed to notice that the stoners and mean girls were just as good at school as they were, and these slackers have all gotten into schools just as “good” as Yale and Columbia. (No clue as to how. The possibility that the parents of these lesser souls have availed themselves of the services of Rick Singer is left unexplored.)
A trivial point, on the face of it; but the great American high school comedies (e.g. Fast Times, American Graffiti, Breaking Away) succeed in large part because they recall that intimacy, the near-universal closeness of kids in an American public high school, thereby touching the chords of real memories to draw the viewer in. In Booksmart, that intimacy is glaringly absent; though there are close and credible relationships depicted, they happen one on one. You never can forget Ridgemont High, but nobody will ever remember this movie’s flat, characterless school again.
The entitled striving of the kids in Booksmart is as vacuous as their school. It’s the “meritocratic” emptiness and self-consequence of good liberal corporate-American ambitions.
Here’s what Molly starts out hearing in her morning motivational tape as the film opens, what she’s going to “learn about,” the “journey” she’ll go on in the film:
“Stand atop the mountain of your success and look down at everyone who has ever doubted you. Fuck those losers. Fuck them in their stupid fucking faces.”
Uh-oh! That is a little too much hostility and superiority for a future Supreme Court Justice to be showing!! By the end a far woker Molly will tell her classmates: “I may not have before, but I see you. And you’re all pretty great.”
In fact we don’t see anyone in this movie who isn’t headed for a “bright future,” that is, wealth and status. If any exist at this school of effortless prodigies, the kids who would be going on to community college or labor activism or nursing are invisible—they don’t count. Kind of like they don’t count on the centrist left, in general.
To put it another way, there is no budding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar within ten miles of Booksmart.
Director Olivia Wilde has been a supporter of both the Obamas and Hillary Clinton. She is a scioness of the famed Cockburn family—a liberal blueblood through and through, and one who grew up rich. She attended private schools (Georgetown Day School and Phillips Academy), and did not share the American public high school experience.
This may explain, in part, the elitist centrism and the bland timidity with which Booksmart treats every real issue, from coming out to inequality, and its staggering failure to consider as a desirable future anything other than acceptance at an “elite school” (or a “mid-six-figure” Google engineering job offered, right out of high school—?!—to Super Stoner Boy of the marvelous hair), all of which left me smdh forever as to why this movie has been so warmly received.
Thank god for Richard Brody, practically the only reviewer who was not taken in, because I was about to lose my mind at all the acclaim: “There isn’t anybody with a big problem, whether with family, poverty, drugs or alcohol, or with illness, physical or mental,” he wrote. “It’s as if Wilde can’t bear to hear the protagonists say things that they’d have any trouble getting over.”
This movie is basically the Democratic Party.
Though what it recalled to me the most was a recent op-ed on another subject, namely Pankaj Mishra’s op-ed last week in the NYT on Narendra Modi’s landslide reelection in India. Modi’s “populism” provides a thin disguise for his really terrifying incompetence and ethnic-religious supremacist convictions; the parallels to Trump are are as pointed as they are ominous.
Rived by caste as well as class divisions, and dominated in Bollywood as well as politics by dynasties, India is a grotesquely unequal society. Its constitution, and much political rhetoric, upholds the notion that all individuals are equal and possess the same right to education and job opportunities; but the everyday experience[s] of most Indians testify to appalling violations of this principle.
A great majority of Indians, forced to inhabit the vast gap between a glossy democratic ideal and a squalid undemocratic reality, have long stored up deep feelings of injury, weakness, inferiority, degradation, inadequacy and envy; these stem from defeats or humiliation suffered at the hands of those of higher status than themselves in a rigid hierarchy.
Booksmart, Hollywood dynasties, “glossy democratic ideal and squalid undemocratic reality,” rigid hierarchy, check, check, check.
The actors in Booksmart are really good—particularly Skyler Gisondo, and Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd. Also, I say all this as one who really loves a great dumbass movie, e.g. I Love You Man, Superbad, Grandma’s Boy, and whose favorite movie might well be Zoolander.
But Booksmart is a high-school movie for Biden voters. Its politics are a Panglossian catastrophe. It’s a false, shallow narrative that Celebrates Women in a world that doesn’t exist, a You Go Girl world where No Elite Child is Left Behind, Botswana is a trading card for virtue signaling, Christian parents think being gay is adorable and they make hors d’oeuvres about it, everybody gets into the Good School, and we can all congratulate ourselves on our awareness and empathy right up until the moment the water is closing over our heads.