I wish there had been Booksmart when I was in my teenage years. There was Thelma and Louise but we all know how that ends. Girl, Interrupted but they were lumped together by alleged madness at the hands of an intolerant society. I also found it challenging to look at roast chicken in the same way again. There’s Clueless and Steel Magnolias, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Beaches and Bridesmaids. Frances Ha and Ladybird. All brilliant and dynamic films that depict strong female friendships. But I can’t help the nagging feeling that they were all circumvented by outside forces or personal journeys. Tainted by evil men, grief, popularity contests or social struggle. I admire and respect these films and the stories of female friendship that they champion. But they don’t quite strike the chord that Booksmart does when it comes to celebrating the divinity of female friendship. The life-altering, utter transcendence of it.
From a young age, I watched films in which the female lead’s attempt to find a man or herself were propelled by the trope of the best friend. Usually quirky, with rapid-fire one-liners and the custodian of the final piece of sage advice that would ensure the protagonist meets a happy ending. In so many films that present a female friendship, there is a gaping lack of equal character development. It nearly always lands as the best friend assisting the much more central best friend to achieve her goal. (I’d like to strongly note that the films I am about to list are some of my most treasured cinematic experiences and I mean no ill harm to their genius.) You’ve Got Mail, Never Been Kissed, Edge Of Seventeen … even Juno. These films that feature friendship never seemed to be solely about friendship.
But Booksmart is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is undoubtedly and unashamedly a big fat love letter to female friendship in its purest form. And yes, it’s also about youth and change and wonderfully echoes that special eighties nostalgia that makes you think of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. But at the core of the film is Molly and Amy and the deep bond that elevates their own powerful sense of womanhood. Wilde honours the profundity of friendship and ardently guides us through its heady mixture of euphoria and complexity. It’s not just singular in its depiction, it’s not simply sad with moments of relief or hilarious to the point of nonsensical. It is a kaleidoscope map to discover with all the feeling and heart of the unique experience that friendship has to offer.
I was lucky enough to find my female soulmates when I was thirteen. I put emphasis on the word lucky because some people never do. At twenty-five, I am endlessly moved by the powerful evolution of the lasting friendships we have created with each other. But I remember so much of our early friendship being dominated by rampant talk of boys and insecurity. We simply didn’t have the cultural role models that would demonstrate that our female friendship possessed the power to eclipse the social anxiety forced upon us. We needed Booksmart. We needed a film that subverted everything we thought we knew about what it was to be a teenage girl and what friendship truly meant.
Heading into the film, I had sneaking expectations of the teen movie plot that might eventually undo my excitement. But the film defied those expectations at every turn thanks to Wilde’s direction, Beanie Feldstein’s and Kaitlyn Dever’s electric performances and Katie Silberman’s perfectly revised script. Each time we arrived at a tipping point into the conventional, Wilde catapulted us out of it. Every time I thought the narrative was wandering away from Molly and Amy’s friendship, we were hauled right back.
When they decide to go to Nick’s party and begin attempting to find their outfits, I was readying myself for impending disaster because how many movie changing room scenes do we witness end in tears? But the doors swung back and Molly spoke the words, ‘Who allowed you to be this beautiful?’ My friends and I looked on, holding our breath, waiting for Amy’s response. ‘Who allowed YOU to be this beautiful?’ We collectively burst out laughing, feverishly nodding our heads. We were relieved. Relieved because those are the words we know to be true and this is how we really feel about each other. And finally, there is a film that celebrates that.
What uplifts their dynamite friendship to an even greater level is the agency both women maintain in relation to each other. Neither sexuality or looks define the characters who are equally central to this story. Neither Molly or Amy use their traits for comedic effect by targeting themselves with vulgar jokes about their sexuality or looks. Their differences are not presented as differences but simply as another facet of their personhood. In Booksmart, it is the soul that equals substance and both women are brimming with it.
Wilde encourages the fiery souls of these female characters to play out. Molly and Amy fight for each other but they are not immune to the intricacy of friendship. They’re scared to hurt each other, they laugh intensely, they are open with each other but they are also capable of lying to each other. Like any true friendship, theirs is a multi-faceted one in which women don’t merely discuss what they look like or who they want that doesn’t want them back. Their shared experiences are not at the hands of others but rather created by themselves.
More than anything, Booksmart shows us the enduring nature of female friendship. The fight that erupts between Amy and Molly at Nick’s party is a manifestation of their fear of losing each other. And I’ve learnt the hard way in my own friendships that you inevitably have to travel to uncomfortable places in order to preserve them. It is the way in which the film deals with this fall out that is a testament to the true spirit and durability of female friendship. Wilde has her heroine’s travel to this uncomfortable place in their friendship in order for them to grow, enabling both women to sustain their friendship whilst encouraging each other to make space for themselves.
I could only simultaneously yelp and weep as I witnessed something that borders on celestial unfolding before myself and my best friends when I watched Booksmart for the first time. My eighteen-year-old sister, whom I count as one of my best friends, sat next to me as we clutched each other in tears at the end of the film. I still wish I’d had a film like Booksmart when I was a teenager but I’m so glad my own teenage sister does now. The film is the first of its kind and for the sake of the sisterhood, I sincerely hope it’s not the last.