My 22-year-old roommate still pretends she has never tried to masturbate and will vigorously try to change the subject if it comes up. But, masturbation isn’t off-limits for high school best friends Amy and Molly. The two nerdy leading ladies of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, get personal when Amy asks “What if I don’t use my hands?” to which Molly gasps, “You can make yourself cum using just your mind? That’s like the one thing my mind can’t do.” These besties support each other, no matter what, from complimenting their outfits to encouraging them to talk to their crush and accepting their odd masturbation apparatuses. Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s little sister) is a full-figured, sassy Valedictorian headed to Yale in the fall, which is all part of her plan to become the youngest female Supreme Court Justice. Amy, played by Kaitlyn Dever, is a more reserved, equally as studious lesbian who is headed to Colombia after a small detour in Botswana to teach women how to make tampons. Despite their impending separation, they remain upbeat and ready to tackle their futures.
The plot centers around Amy and Molly finding out the night before graduation that their peers —the ones who worked hard, but appeared to play way harder— got into equally prestigious colleges. One student even scored a job at Google. Molly is furious and confused, “You don’t even care about school” she yells at the it-girl who smirks, “No, we just don’t only care about school.” With one night left to redeem themselves, Molly and Amy promise to crash to the biggest party, find Amy’s crush Ryan, and have all the fun they neglected over the last four years. Although the coming-of-age and "one night to do it all" themes have been done in the past, Booksmart does it better. The film sends original messages, highlights diversity in race, sexuality, and appearance, and breaks stereotypical portrayals of female leads, all while capturing the reality of 2019.
There’s so much right with Booksmart. It passes media representation tests from Bechdel to Mako Mori to Vito Russo. The film is rich with socially inclusive and politically correct lines like “that’s her gender performance, not her sexual orientation,” but not in a taboo social justice warrior way, instead as a reflection of our diverse, nuanced society. This is further evidenced by the film's portrayal of teenage girls which finally includes depth and substance. Early on Molly turns to Amy and asserts, “We are not one dimensional. We are fun and smart.” In what other movies do female leads talk about their dimensionality? Booksmart shows girls you are more than just your crush, your intelligence, or your looks, because you are all of those. Especially in Triple A’s case (a slut-shamed student known for giving “roadside assistance”), the power of rumors and stereotypes are evident and on a spontaneous ride home, Molly discovers that AAA is so much more than her reputation. It’s already powerful to come to terms with the nuances of yourself, but potentially even more powerful to accept that in others. It’s easier to lump other people into a box (think “bitch” or “slut” etc.) than to acknowledge and respect another’s complexities.
Booksmart doesn’t just break the mold when it comes to female portrayal, it also breaks the mold when it comes to how we think about being smart. The film’s messages about intellect are quite original: intelligence doesn’t give you the right up to treat other people poorly and book smarts are one dimension of intelligence. This is the first movie I’ve seen where nerdy teenage girls fit the bully mold better than the hot, popular kids. By being technically villain-less, Booksmart illustrates that sometimes you can be the villain. Molly and Amy (but really mostly Molly) constantly chastise their peers for their lack of wit and motivation. But one of the points of the movie is that Molly and Amy, two classic examples of high school know-it-alls, don’t know it all. In fact, they realize over the course of the night that there’s so much they don’t know and that true intelligence is leaning into that with curiosity.
Rushali, a current student, recently started a Lean On Me (LOM) chapter at UCSB in the hopes of filling the gaps in the mental health services on campus. LOM is a platform-based service that anonymously connects users via text message with peer volunteers who provide support. While LOM doesn’t handle crisis-level situations (like suicide), users will have a place to feel heard and understood. Rushali was inspired to bring LOM to UCSB because “due to the large volume of students, it can sometimes feel like it [UCSB’s mental health services] isn’t enough and some students can fall through the cracks or get left behind.” She understands that the size of the school doesn’t just affect the capacity of CAPS, but can also make students feel like a small fish in a big pond. She remarks that large class sizes can make it feel “like you don’t matter or that your vote/opinion means little. It can seem like professors or advisors don't care.” In reality, Rushali notes, “you're one of a thousand students that need their help.” This can lead to students who are quiet, shy, or not proactive easily falling behind in their school work and mental health.
Another first coming from Booksmart was casting a larger sized female lead and then not bringing any attention to it. In movies like Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, Trainwreck, Dumplin and even Rebel Wilson in both Pitch Perfects, you finally get full-sized women as leads on the big screen. Awesome, right? Yes and no. Yes, because we need to see all types of women represented in media. But, films always seem to draw attention to these women's appearances, usually first in a negative light and then as the movie progresses in a self-love, body positive way. It was incredible, and honestly shocking, that in an hour and 42 minutes the only time Molly’s appearance was brought up was when Amy and her were complimenting each other. “No,” one says, “Not acceptable,” replied the other, “This is not okay,” Amy says to Molly, “Who allowed you to be this beautiful?” Molly replies back. Not once does Molly or anyone else in the entire film bring up her size nor does Molly experience any shame or insecurity about her appearance.
Booksmart is sore-cheeks funny, while simultaneously imbued with vital life lessons and progressive feminist ideals. Moments like the girls’ principal being their Uber driver because he can’t support himself on a principal’s salary epitomize how the movie is, as Beanie said in an interview, “so 2019.” Booksmart isn’t shy; themes of female masturbation and lesbian sex (specifically scissoring) are explored and demonstrate to audiences that these topics aren’t taboo, they are a natural part of life and not to be ashamed of (cough cough my roommate). Booksmart will hopefully make future generations more open to talking about things that previously seemed unmentionable, more accepting of others, and encourage them to balance their school and play in a healthy way. I wish I’d had this movie in high school.
This piece was composed in a magazine writing class for a feature assignment on any topic. Part of the assignment was to conduct several interviews, with at least one being with a professional. I chose to write about social isolation and dissatisfaction at UCSB.
This feature demonstrates my ability to conduct primary and secondary research and compose a well-rounded piece with diverse voices and experiences. While I could have gone on and on with this topic, the assignment had a strict word limit, so this piece also indicates my ability to follow instructions and be efficient and effective with my words.