A conversation about ‘Booksmart’ between Julianna Chen and Hannah Yang, who each saw it twice

Booksmart has become an instant favorite of people who have watched it, garnering much praise from critics and the general public alike. Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut feels like something special made for teens of the day, but not exclusively so. It’s a comedy first and foremost, packed with laughs, but it makes room for sincerity and real emotion. The movie flits perfectly between outrageously funny, relatable emotions and experiences: anxiety, crushes, disappointments, awkwardness, love, and friendship. Booksmart has a cast of characters that are colorful and authentic. This charming film is funny and heartfelt, and exactly what we need.
How Booksmart portrays high schoolers in 2019

JC: I think Booksmart portrays 2019 high schoolers as very politically active people. You see it with the decor choices in Amy’s room, the Warren 2020 stickers on the car. I believe Booksmart gets it right there—our generation is a lot more tuned into current events and changing the world than many adults might assume. Molly and Amy are both so highly ambitious and driven, which is an accurate depiction of many high schoolers I know.
Now, one of my only qualms with the film—I’ve read reviews discussing how wealthy the high school in Booksmart seems to be; nearly all the kids go to Ivies and live in mansions. I personally felt seen and represented by the film, but I also live in an affluent suburb and attend a similarly competitive high school. And I recognize that that experience isn’t universal to a lot of teenagers.
HY: I definitely thought, “Oh, it’s one of THOSE schools,” because everyone got into good colleges and seemed pretty wealthy. It’s interesting that Molly wasn’t like most of the school population, though. It could have been explored more, and maybe that’s why she’s so motivated to excel academically, but also, I was there to laugh.  
JC: You’re right about “one of those schools”—in the movie, they obviously attend an affluent and competitive high school but, then again, I guess we can’t pretend those schools don’t exist, either. Like, rich college prep schools are very much a thing.
HY: I felt like Olivia Wilde and the writers (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman) captured the kind of teen I am pretty well. I felt seen! The Elizabeth Warren sticker, the posters in Amy’s room, and the way feminism and world issues are just a constant part of their conversations and who they are. What I liked about that was how they didn’t make it into a liberal gag—although it may have felt that way to some, but I felt they were just accurately portraying young liberal girls who are still more optimistic and idealistic. And of course, it’s only a few people who do act like Molly and Amy—the rest of the school thinks they’re a little extra (i.e. Hope and Tanner calling them the “protest girls”).
Favorite aspects of Booksmart
JC: I loved how the “hot girls,” the sexually active ones, were portrayed as highly intelligent.
In high school, I was always taking the most advanced classes possible, and always maintained this razor-sharp focus on getting into a good college. I deeply resent this, because it felt like since I was smart, I couldn’t be...hot? Girls who are intelligent are typically seen as super-nerds who make out with their textbooks every night and care more about college tours than parties or boys. So when I got into my dream school, I felt the need to post provocative photos on Instagram and present myself in a sexual manner to prove that I wasn’t one of those kids who only cared about studying. Actually, it wasn’t just because I got into a good college; I’d been doing that for a while. But the thing is, you don’t have to prove anything to anyone, and you don’t have to choose between being hot and being smart, because attractiveness and intelligence are not mutually exclusive traits—Booksmart nailed that!

How Booksmart deals with representation
HY: There has been some talk about how Booksmart is yet another film about two white girls growing up and yes, it definitely is… But it had a lot more diversity compared to other films, and the demographics in the film just felt authentic—you had a cast of Asian, black, Hispanic, gay, queer, lesbian people! Yes, funding POC voices is very important and I’m sure I would love to see an Asian coming-of-age film, but Booksmart is also a film directed by a white woman. Olivia Wilde is a great director, but I’m sure she couldn’t direct an Asian or black or Latino perspective film as well as she did Booksmart. Maybe this is a little taboo to say, but I don’t mind white people in films? This new push for diversity and representation is important, but I think in the end, the quality of the product is the main thing I’m concerned with. I didn’t feel like I was watching an exclusively white film, maybe because of how academically driven Molly and Amy were or because it wasn’t really brought up much. I understand why some people would bring it up, though. But just because there were two white leads doesn’t mean that the quality of the film and the representation it did have should be discredited.  
On LGBTQ representation, Booksmart was so fantastic. Amy’s sexuality isn’t made to be a big deal—it’s accepted by everyone (big sigh of relief that there wasn’t any typical gay angst), she gets to explore it, and we actually see some action. Her gay is pretty on point and nuanced, too (all those peace signs she awkwardly flashes), and I also like how it ended well for her, eventually.
JC: Okay, I completely agree. It is a film directed by and starring white women, and while I’m Asian-American and would appreciate more Asian-American coming-of-age films, it’s like you said—I don’t necessarily mind work by and featuring white people. I wish I could speak on this more eloquently, but it personally doesn’t make sense to me to shit on Booksmart simply for being a coming-of-age movie with white people. That being said, I do believe the coming-of-age genre will be so much stronger when stories centered on POC are celebrated more.

What makes Booksmart so funny
JC: It’s a whip-smart and super tight script to begin with, but the cast’s deliveries—Molly’s and Gigi’s in particular—of all the lines are amazing throughout.
I think what helps to make it so funny is that not every moment is laugh-out-loud hilarious. There are subtle moments here and there that really contrast with the big ones to make them feel...even bigger? Also, the casualness with which certain lines are said just makes them even funnier because it’s like they weren’t intended to be humorous. Like when Jared says “absofruitly” like it’s no big deal.
HY: The way the comedy unfolds so perfectly is just a delight to watch—Gigi’s vitamins flying everywhere, for instance. Or the iconic “Is that Cardi B?” line. I liken it to Olivia Wilde and the crew driving, and you expect them to drive straight or turn right, but they take a hard left, sort of an adrenaline rush.
JC: Exactly! The unpredictability of it all—but in the same breath, how sometimes, you can anticipate it and it gives you a feeling of dread that makes it all so much funnier. Like, whenever they put the headphones in to listen to the porn, I knew that they’d either accidentally rip them out and blast the porn or the AUX would go in, and the dread made it so much better when it actually happened.
Biggest themes in Booksmart
HY: Booksmart, for me, was a lot about individuality and how we understand other people. There are a lot of stereotypical high school characters introduced to us at first. We see Jared and we think “Oh, he’s the one flaunting his wealth with the Gucci, he’s the fuckboi.” We see Theo and he’s the pothead/coding dude. We see Triple A and she’s a girl who likes sex. Nick is the dumb one, Gigi is the weird one, and Hope is the mean one. But as the film progresses, these characters become people and not just stereotypes. We see them as people we could possibly understand and even relate to. We tend to hide our real emotions and how much we care about things because people judge and it seems so uncool sometimes. The moment when Jared gets super honest with Molly and talks about his dreams and how nobody knows him at the school—it’s a feeling that a lot of us can relate to, and it feels like the loneliest thing in the world. If we’re lucky, like Molly and Amy, there are people who truly understand us and who we can truly be honest with. It’s something that struck me—no matter what we project or what stereotype we claim, each of us have real emotions and aspirations behind it all. The true version of ourselves is so, so hard to share with other people, and because of that I think we end up misjudging each other. That’s a lesson Molly certainly learned with Jared, Gigi, and Molly (and one that Amy learned with Hope). At the graduation scene, Molly says “I see you” to her class, and that is such a beautiful concept.  
JC: I agree that stereotypes were super central in Booksmart. I think stereotypes are super central in almost every coming-of-age film, and Booksmart is very refreshing in how it tackles them. I think that another major theme was accepting your mistakes and growing from them, too. Molly has a bit of a low-key superiority complex toward her peers—at the beginning of the film, she thinks she works harder than everyone, deserves more than everyone. At the end of the movie, she realizes that she was wrong about a lot of people. So, I think that the whole realizing-your-flaws thing is big.

By Julianna Chen and Hannah Yang

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