BOOKSMART (2019) – Raunchy Teen Comedy Has Its Moments

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BOOKSMART (2019), the new R-rated teen comedy by first-time director Olivia Wilde, has a lot of things going for it: a fun premise, sharp comedic and oftentimes poignant writing, a talented cast, and energetic direction.

But what it doesn’t have is a strong sense of realism. While I enjoyed most of BOOKSMART, I can’t say that I believed in much of it, which is too bad because parts of this movie have a lot to say.

With BOOKSMART, director Olivia Wilde takes the coming of age stories found in films like EIGHTH GRADE (2018) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) and turns them into a raunchy R-rated comedy. The good news is the film never deteriorates into mindless vulgarity, but the bad news is it never reaches the level of truth and sensitivity found in the aforementioned movies either.

In BOOKSMART, high school seniors Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on the eve of graduation realize that their classmates who goofed around through high school still got into the colleges of their choice, and so they decide if their classmates can do both, that is party and still get into top colleges, then they can as well, and so they decide to party hearty for one big night just to say they did before they graduated high school.

The film follows their attempts to find the huge class party (since they weren’t invited) which leads to one mishap after another since they’re not very good at this sort of thing, but they’re determined, and do eventually make it to the party to end all parties where they hope to finally engage in the relationships they only thought about during their four years of high school.

BOOKSMART is lively and energetic from start to finish. At times, the girls’ mishaps on their quest to find the elusive party reminded me of the situations in the HANGOVER movies, although nothing here reaches the level of insane comedy found in that series, although this film certainly tries. Director Olivia Wilde lets everything fly, even including a hilarious scene featuring Amy and Molly as animated figures.

The screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman is very funny. The best part about the humor is it takes the usual drug and sex jokes and keeps them honest and prevents them from being cliché. Indeed, the humor works best when the situations are honest. For example, one of the funniest sequences involves Amy’s long-awaited and first sexual encounter with another girl.

The party scenes are also a cut above the usual mindless shenanigans of drunk teens. But not all the humor works, as some of the situations like when the girls try to hijack a pizza delivery driver to get the address of the party, simply aren’t taken far enough to be truly funny. Still, there are a decent number of laugh out loud moments.

BOOKSMART is a female driven movie to be sure, with its woman director, four women screenwriters, and predominantly female cast. As such, this film has a lot to say about young women and their relationships. Probably the deepest part of the story is Amy’s dealings with her sexuality. The discussions regarding gender and sexual preferences are spot on. The problem is the film doesn’t go there enough. These topics take a back seat to the raunchy comedic parts of the story.

The bigger culprit though is the believability factor. The bottom line here is most of the students in this film simply didn’t seem all that real to me. Sure, the story takes place in California, and the characters here are all from an affluent west coast neighborhood, but they certainly didn’t seem like they were living in the real world. And at the end of the day, this lack of realism works against the movie and what it’s trying to say about the life of high school students, especially female high school students, in 2019.

The cast was excellent. Both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein stand out in the lead roles as Amy and Molly. These two did seem like real people, and I enjoyed watching this story about the two of them and their lifelong friendship. Dever has already had some notable roles in films like DETROIT (2017), THE FRONT RUNNER (2018), and BEAUTIFUL BOY (2018). Her role here only adds to her impressive resume.

Beanie Feldstein impressed in LADY BIRD (2017), playing lead character Lady Bird’s best friend Julie.

Other notable performances in the young cast include Victoria Ruesga as Ryan, Mason Gooding as Nick, Skyler Gisondo as Jared, Diana Silvers as Hope, Molly Gordon as Triple A, Eduardo Franco as Theo, Austin Crute as Alan, and Noah Galvin as George. All these actors have key moments in the movie, and they’re all very good.

The cast also includes veteran actors Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, as well as Jason Sudeikis as the school principal.

While BOOKSMART is certainly funny, it never reaches the level of all-out hilarity it needed to be really memorable. Likewise, while its script and story do possess moments of sensitivity and insight into the teenage condition in 2019, these moments are sporadic at best. And while the dialogue is realistic and raw, unfiltered to a fault, the situations the two leads find themselves in are more often ludicrous than real. As such, while I had fun with BOOKSMART, I can’t say I believed most of it, which works against the stronger thematic elements of this comedy.

I liked BOOKSMART, but had it been a tad smarter, I would have loved it.

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Best Movies 2018

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2018:

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10. BOOK CLUB – I really enjoyed this comedy starring Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen, and Candice Bergen about four friends who decide to read 50 Shades of Grey for their monthly book club, and it changes the way they think about sex and relationships during their senior years. Also starring Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Richard Dreyfus, and Craig T. Nelson. My favorite comedy of the year.

9. WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?  – in a banner yeary for documentaries, this one was my favorite. Its recounting of the life of Fred Rogers, TV’s Mister Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, resonates deeply today, as Rogers’ message of inclusion and gentle understanding is sorely missed in today’s antagonistic and deeply divided society.

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8. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP – I enjoyed this Ant-Man sequel more than the original. Story is better, jokes and situations are funnier, and Evangeline Lily adds a lot as the Wasp and is a nice complement to Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. Oh, and then there’s that after-credits tie-in with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which produced audible gasps from the audience.

7.BOY ERASED – Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this film which exposes gay conversion theory for the dangerous procedure that it is. Fine performances by Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe, and by Edgerton himself as an unqualified leader of the conversion camp.

6. THE FRONT RUNNER – Sure, I’m partial to political movies, but this tale of Gary Hart’s fall from being the Democratic front runner in the 1988 presidential election to dropping out of the race entirely due to an exposed extra-marital affair pushed all the right buttons for me. The film asks relevant questions which are still being asked today. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Gary Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his suffering wife Lee.

5. EIGHTH GRADE – Awesome film which completely captures what it is like to be an eighth grader. On target writing and directing by Bo Burnham, especially the dialogue, and a fantastic lead performance by Elsie Fisher as eighth grader Kayla Day.

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018)

4. THE GUILTY – From Denmark, this claustrophobic intense police drama is as compelling as they come, the type of film Alfred Hitchcock would have made. All of the action takes place inside a police dispatch office as an officer relegated to the emergency dispatch receives a call from a woman being kidnapped, and he has to deal with the situation in real time. You’ll swear you’ve seen all the action scenes, but that will be your mind playing tricks on you, as the camera remains focused on the police officer throughout. Excellent movie, and lean, as it clocks in at a swift 85 minutes.

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3. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR – It was an outstanding year for Marvel, as three of my top ten films this year come from the Marvel Universe. This was the biggie, the ultimate showdown between the Avengers and their most dangerous adversary yet, Thanos. Amazing superhero movie, with a big bold ending which is no longer a spoiler, which is, the bad guy wins in this one. One of the most emotional endings to any superhero movie, causing audible gasps and groans multiple times as the film races to its inevitable conclusion.

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2. ROMA – An extraordinary movie, ROMA was unlike any other film I saw this year. Unassuming simple tale of a maid working for a family in Mexico in 1970-71. Features some of the best camerawork of the year, all of it in mesmerizing black and white. Slow at first, but stick with it. The final 45 minutes is among the most emotional moments on film I saw all year.

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1. BLACK PANTHER –  My pick for the best movie of the year is another Marvel gem. This one takes the superhero movie to a whole other level, dealing with racial issues as well as any mainstream drama. My favorite superhero film since THE DARK KNIGHT (2018). I loved the conflict between hero Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and villain Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan),and one of the rare times in a superhero movie where the hero admits he’s wrong and the villain is right.  Outstanding in every way, easily my favorite movie of 2018.

So, there you have it, my picks for the Best Films of 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EIGHTH GRADE (2018) – Convincing, Contemporary Portrait of Difficult Middle School Years

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Elsie Fisher in EIGHTH GRADE (2018).

The best part about EIGHTH GRADE (2018), the new coming of age comedy/drama by writer/director Bo Burnham, is that it absolutely nails what it is like to experience one of life’s most difficult ages: eighth grade.  And it does it with the all important and clear message that life goes on, that it’s never as bad as it seems during that awkward year of transition, and that it’s all just a natural part of growing up.

It also serves as an accurate assessment of what life is like for today’s middle school students.

EIGHTH GRADE opens with main character Kayla (Elsie Fisher) recording herself on her computer as she shares advice for her fellow eighth graders. She does this numerous times during the movie, and these moments are worth the price of admission alone. She thinks and speaks exactly like an eighth grader, and to hear her share her thoughts on such topics as why you should just be yourself, and approaching life with confidence, is as refreshing as it is real. These chats are juxtaposed with Kayla’s real life experiences which more often than not don’t go as planned.

It’s the end of Kayla’s eighth grade year, and the film follows her final few days in middle school, having to deal with such things as being voted the most quiet girl in her grade, to trying to fit in with the popular girls, to living with her very well-meaning single dad who seems to annoy her with every positive word he says.

EIGHTH GRADE is a fascinating look at one of life’s most difficult years, and the writing is so sharp it captures this awkward time with amazing clarity. I know a little bit about this age group, since I teach middle school, and as the father of two adult sons, I survived the experience of parenting middle schoolers. And of course way back in the stone age I was an eighth grader myself. The film gets it right.

So, the question you’re probably asking is, if you hated eighth grade, why would you want to see this movie? The number one reason is that it captures what eighth grade is like for teens in the here and now, teens who are so locked into electronics they cannot put their phones down even in the middle of personal conversations, teens whose parents struggle to talk with them, teens who find active shooter drills at school dull and boring, and teens who fear growing up too fast.

It also makes a very poignant case for the seemingly endless amount of patience needed as a parent of an eighth grader.

And the script is so strong if you like good writing, you have to see this movie.

Writer/director Bo Burnham, known more for his acting than for his time behind the camera— in fact, EIGHTH GRADE is his directorial debut—has written dialogue that is so on the money with its depiction of middle school voices at times you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary. And his work as a director is just as powerful. So often the camera comes in tight on Kayla’s face and lingers there, capturing her feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, and all too often discomfort.

There are lots of memorable moments in this movie. When Kayla attends a pool party hosted by the most popular girl in her class, an invite which she only received because the girl’s mother forced the issue, she literally has a panic attack in the bathroom before changing into her bathing suit. And once she does, the camera follows her slow uncomfortable walk towards the pool, where everybody seems to know everyone else, and she feels out-of-place. Her hunched posture during this sequence is on the mark, as is the pain felt when her birthday gift is opened to relative silence and frowns.

Speaking of pain, one of the more powerful scenes is when she is driven home by a high school student who decides to stop the car and get into the back seat with her. These few moments of the movie are extremely uncomfortable and unnerving because the boy’s intentions are clear, and when Kayla finally utters “no!” the audience nearly jumped out of its collective seat.

On the other hand, the joy Kayla feels when her high school mentor invites her to hang out with her and her friends at the mall is so palpable you’ll nearly cheer.

Some of the best scenes are between Kayla and her father Mark (Josh Hamilton). Mark is a patient loving father, but the harder he tries to connect to his daughter, the more she seems to push him away, yet he never loses focus, or his temper. Indeed, in one scene at the dinner table, when Kayla just wants to be on her phone, he displays composure that is beyond belief. And if there’s one part of this movie that might not ring true, it might be the saintly restraint displayed by Mark. While it is certainly admirable, and something that all parents of middle schoolers should strive for, having been there, I know that it’s never that easy to remain that patient.

One of the more disturbing scenes in the film only because it’s a way of life now for students across the United States is the active shooter drill at the middle school. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but hope that somewhere in our future, say fifty years from now, audiences might look back and wonder, “what was that all about?”  the way modern audiences do when they see scenes of bomb drills which took place in the 1950s.

As I said, EIGHTH GRADE is actor Bo Burnham’s directorial debut, and it’s an awesome debut to say the least. Both his direction and screenplay are Oscar worthy.

Likewise, Elsie Fisher is phenomenal as Kayla.  It’s such a natural performance. It’s clear that she’s not too far removed from the middle school experience. Kayla is an introvert, a quiet awkward student who doesn’t see herself as quiet outside of school and only chooses to be quiet in school. She is actually brimming with confidence and is constantly looking for any opportunity to show off this confidence, whether it be trying to get noticed by the cute boy in her class to getting along with her new high school mentor.

As Kayla, Fisher is in nearly every scene in the movie, and she carries this film with ease. She’s easy to watch, and Kayla is a character you are happy to root for. In a middle school world full of pretensions and meanness, Kayla is sincere and kind.

Josh Hamilton is also excellent as Kayla’s dad Mark. His unceasing patience is admirable, and the speech he delivers to Kayla late in the movie, where he tells her how happy she makes him, is one that I believe most parents of middle schoolers wish they too could make.

Emily Robinson shines as Olivia, the high school senior who is paired with Kayla during her high school shadow day. She’s perfect as the accepting high schooler who instantly connects with Kayla.

Jake Ryan also has a couple of noteworthy scenes as Gabe, the awkward yet friendly boy who strikes up a conversation with Kayla and later invites her to dinner at his house.

Sadly, the middle school itself is shown as something of a failure and not as a place that is doing a whole lot of good for middle schoolers. As I said, I teach middle school, and I’m fortunate to work at a school that makes middle school students its priority and prides itself on creating an environment where these students thrive.  I hope there are more schools like ours across the country rather than like the one depicted in this movie.

With up to date and realistic dialogue, and powerful and natural acting performances, EIGHTH GRADE is a convincing portrait of what it’s like to be a middle school student here in 2018. The film also communicates the uplifting message that in spite of the awkwardness and pain that accompanies the age, the future is bright for these students as they move on to high school and beyond. It’s a message that is both heartfelt and rewarding.

EIGHTH GRADE is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

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