Booksmart

bsDirector: Olivia Wilde

Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow

There was a time not long ago where we were getting a nice little onslaught of better than average coming of age films. The sweet spot maybe was 2013 – 2014; movies like Boyhood, The Spectacular Now, Mud, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Hunger Games films were all happening during this period, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe while in full swing, had not quite fully established its supreme dominance. Films like those seemed to have dropped off the mainstream in recent memory. Lady Bird certainly broke through in 2017, but other than that, it’s been a different sensibility at the movies. Fortunately, Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart may be proving that the time is right to resurrect this delicate genre where the performers wear their hearts on their sleeves and we reflect on our inner-child rather than galactic super-dominance. And just so we’re clear, I loved Avengers: Endgame, but variety is the spice of life!

Booksmart documents the final days of high school for Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who embraced school to the fullest, lead the student council, earned every academic honor, and have been accepted to prestigious colleges. Their beliefs were that in order to reach these epic academic heights, they had to be laser-focused on studies and extra-curricular activities, leaving no room for the indulgent parts of high school.

That being said, when circumstances reveal that several of Amy and Molly’s popular and partying classmates (whom they perceived were than bright) also had received admirable post-secondary opportunities, they realized that, perhaps they missed out on the high school experience after all, leading to a mission to make up for lost time in one night by hitting parties, giving into urges, and just being kids!

The bulk of the film can be described as in the vein of other films like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Superbad where outsiders decide they want to be insiders and awkwardly work their way in only to learn it’s not so great on the inside, but the journey is the truly valuable experience. I’m not subjugating the plot to be critical because while this is a time-tested format, the journey truly is the valuable part, and Booksmart does just enough with this to make it stand out as clever, relatable, and entertaining.

Much (all) of the credit for this film’s success should be given to the two lead performers, Dever and Feldstein. This movie is two actresses away from being middle-of-the-road. Comparable to the way Metcalf and Ronan elevated Lady Bird, these two actresses give everything to their performances and make us care about them, their friendship, and their futures. Supporting roles that are practically cameos come from Jason Sudeikis (Wilde’s husband), Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow who all basically bolster the comedy side of things, and they do so nicely. However, this film is all-in on its two leads.

Appreciating this film does involve some true introspection. Some of the negative criticisms I have read about the film come from reviewers who clearly just missed the nuances and the point. One reviewer mentioned that Booksmart wants you to laugh at someone being vomited on, but I don’t think that scene was meant to be funny at all. Another said that “name-dropping” Malala was in poor form, but if you’ve ever met a teenager, you’d know that this is something that they would totally do, and their reasoning for it is actually quite in the spirit of who Malala is and what she represents as an activist (not that it even has to be). What I’m trying to say here is that this film attempts to breathe the air its characters breathe, and if anything, I’d say it’s not authentic enough being set in a highly affected, mostly affluent school with kids who do not really represent everyday kids. Booksmart does not want to cater to perceived expectations. It also does not want to shock or make you uncomfortable; however at times it does both of those things because that’s life. B+

Booksmart is rated R and has a running tiem of 1 hour and 45 minutes.  

The Fault in Our Stars

faultThe Fault in Our Stars is the film based on the wildly successful young adult novel by John Green. In an interview, Green said in writing the book that he wanted to create a moving and realistic portrait of what it’s like to be young and in love and sick. Now if that doesn’t sound interesting, you’re probably not a 15-year-old girl. Nonetheless, Josh Boone directs a film that achieves Green’s goal by telling a humanizing story about very adult situations impacting some very young people.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of seventeen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and eighteen-year-old Augustus (Ansel Elgort). Hazel lives with stage IV Thyroid cancer with metastasis forming in her lungs causing her to be perpetually connected to an oxygen tank. Augustus is recovering from a bout with osteosarcoma that took one of his legs. Hazel nearly died from complications of her cancer when she was thirteen, but favorable results from an experimental drug called Philanxiphor have slowed the growth of her cancer. Hazel and Augustus form an immediate bond when they meet in a cancer support group, and the film basically documents their growing relationship as it buds into romance.
As with any romantic film, much of its success relies on the chemistry between the stars, and Woodley and Elgort have it. Woodley practically makes me forget about her dull and droning performance in Divergent and instead makes me recall a much better film of hers, The Spectacular Now. She plays Hazel with the intelligence, dignity, and realism that her character deserves. Elgort brings the extreme likability of Augustus off the page and to life. Augustus’s goal is to be remembered, to seize the day and do remarkable things. Green’s book and Boone’s film do a nice job of showing an audience who is likely on the young side that being a good person is the best way to make this happen.
There’s no getting around this, The Fault in Our Stars is sad. The reason that makes it worth the emotional struggle is that the story is so human. That is not to say that the film does not pander for tears. On occasion, it does, but the film’s love, life, and spirit of humanity far outweigh its struggles, darkness, and frailty of life.
While the film does have young protagonists and is told chiefly through their eyes, there is a sphere of adult perspective from both Hazel’s and Augustus’s parents. Hazel’s mother (Laura Dern) is developed well in the film, and in some of the film’s happiest moments, Dern is responsible for the audience’s biggest smiles.
The Fault in Our Stars is a strongly accurate adaptation of Green’s novel. It is also a beautiful little film about young love under bleak circumstances. There is no doubt you know what you are getting into before buying a ticket for this film, but in the words of the film’s strangest character Peter Van Houten (Willem Defoe), “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” B+
The Fault in Our Stars is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Bring a tissue if you’re a crier.

Divergent

ImageThere is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, the film based on the massively popular Veronica Roth novel ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.

The film opens a la Twilight with a brief and information-rich voice-over that gives us the low-down on a dystopian and futuristic Chicago. Society has been segmented into five personality-based factions: Erudite, Dauntless, Amity, Candor, and Abnegation from which our heroine Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) hails. At the age of 16, Beatrice, later known as ‘Tris,’ must take an aptitude test, which all young people must take in order to discover which faction they would be most apt to join. The test results in a recommendation, but it is ultimately the decision of each individual to select the faction they want to join. The catch is that once a person selects a faction, there is no going back and a rigid training session begins that if not passed results in that person’s dismissal and the shameful label of being “factionless.”

After Tris’s aptitude test comes back inconclusive, she resolves to join the Dauntless faction, dedicated to fearlessness and bravery. If this process sounds similar to another YA novel’s “categorization” element, that’s because it is absurdly similar to the sorting ceremony in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Harry Potter’s uniqueness is a cause for one particular recommendation by the sorting hat in The Sorcerer’s Stone, yet he disregards it to declare his allegiance to another house. Tris’s “inconclusive” test is actually code for her being a unique anomaly within society called a Divergent. Simply put, this means that her aptitude is not wholly within one faction but a combination of them all.

The film’s opening act is relatively interesting and does a passable job of explaining the world these characters inhabit. The problem is that there is not enough “newness” to this story and while the film is just another adaptation of another beloved young adult novel, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be held to the same originality standards as any other genre. Furthermore, once the Tris enters the world of the Dauntless, a whole new bag of issues emerges that sink the film even farther.

Most of the film from this point forward is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Tris’s struggles at Dauntless are pitted against her secret identify as a Divergent. Will she be discovered? Are there other Divergents? Will she hook up with the hunky “I don’t want to be just one thing,” Four (Theo James)? These questions will be answered, just don’t hold your breath. The film gets so caught up in its own mythology, that it never really even considers convincing the audience why these “Divergents” are so dangerous. Divergents are people who can think for themselves and have multiple skills and talents. It becomes increasingly clear why Erudite faction leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet) is not fond of Divergents, but why does the rest of society view them as dangerous? A few tacked on lines of dialogue towards the end attempt to answer this, but not to any satisfaction.

A few words about Shailene Woodley. She has emerged on the scene with great success in films like The Descendants and The Spectacular Now. In Divergent, Woodley’s performance is quite bland and well, wooden. She broods, she emotes with deep and hyperventalative breathing, she conveys confusion at the right times, but she never quite achieves a connection with the audience worth rooting for. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for this flavorless and wishy-washy performance. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. Woodley gives a very controlled performance and unfortunately the one in control is a strong candidate for being factionless!  D+

Divergent is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes.

The Spectacular Now

ImageThe Spectacular Now delivers a powerful and deeply cautionary story about two high school seniors improbably drawn together. When party boy, Sutter (Miles Teller) is discovered passed out on a stranger’s lawn by nice-girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley) it is far from love at first sight, but there is something. That something is part of what makes The Spectacular Now so good. It somehow avoids much of the cliché trappings of traditional coming of age films, resulting in a very engaging and emotionally relatable experience.

The Spectacular Now introduces Sutter at the start of senior year, just as his long time relationship with Cassidy (Brie Larson) has come to a sudden end causing him to ponder what he is supposed to do now. The “Now” in The Spectacular Now is intriguing. As youth culture perpetually twists the philosophical message behind Romantic individualism, what was once an ideology for adventure has been warped into a sort of assumed invincibility. This slight alteration has resulted in the YOLO (You Only Live Once) anthem that is bellowed by teens before doing a likely regrettable action. Thus, Sutter’s contemplation on what to do “now” is analogous as he is not so much concerned with his future, as one might expect, but with literarally what to do right now, with little thought towards the future at all. This sets the context for a much richer tapestry, often overlooked by other romantic films of this type. Much of the credit for why this works can be given to Teller and Woodley as their impeccably authentic performances brilliantly build the core relationship that was central to Tim Tharp’s novel. The novel was adapted, in part, by 500 Days of Summer screenwriter, Scott Neustadter, which accounts for its breezy tone overall but with a hint of something looming just out of sight. Aimee’s character is used to inject a viewpoint often disregarded by Sutter, and as Sutter and Aimee’s relationship evolves so does the complexity of Sutter’s life. Sutter’s haphazard lifestyle has been molded by a combination of society and environment to a degree that his character remains entirely sympathetic. The film may be a bit simplistic in its sections dealing with the others in Miles’ life including his sister, mother, boss, and father, but it works beautifully as a metaphor for the richness that life can potentially offer if one can look beyond the “now” and into one more “spectacular,” which can be more of a challenge than one might think. A-

The Spectacular Now is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 35 minutes. It is a brilliant showcase for these two young stars-to-be. It is better than the average romantic love story and is a nice reminder for how these types of films need not draw from the same old cliché well in order to please audiences.