‘Booksmart’ is an Instant High School Movie Classic

Booksmart movie poster

Looking back at my high school days, I wonder if I got into enough trouble as a kid. I was a good kid for the most part, a pretty good student, and was and still am a firm believer in karma. Still, a lot of my fellow classmates who constantly got into all kinds of mischief, some of which involved police involvement, seem to be doing much better in life than me. The other day, I read an article about how the kids who were really into heavy metal back in the 1980’s have since turned out to be well-adjusted adults. Perhaps if I had discovered Metallica in elementary school instead of high school, I would feel well-adjusted as well. Besides, neither Megadeath nor Motley Crue came even close.

I bring this up because these thoughts went through my head as I watched “Booksmart,” an American coming of age comedy which has at its center two females who have been best friends since childhood and are now one day away from graduating high school. They have been model students, paid far more attention to their studies than partying, and they have since been accepted to some of the best colleges America has to offer. But with one day of high school left, they begin to wonder if they haven’t fooled around enough in the past four years. What results is a film which has been described as a female “Superbad,” and it is one of the best coming-of-age films I have seen in some time.

It is made clear from the start how best friends Molly Davidson (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent more time studying these past four years than they have getting wasted every other weekend. Molly is the student body president, but she is nowhere as popular as the vice-president, Nick Howland (Mason Gooding), who only went for the position because it involved planning parties. Amy came out as gay two years ago, and she is harboring a huge crush on fellow classmate Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) which could go unrequited. But while they have accomplished so much, these two young women are typically spurned by their fellow classmates as being too pretentious.

Molly ends up convincing Amy to go to Nick’s party, the biggest end-of-the-school party of all, after she makes a shocking discovery. While she and Amy have gotten into good schools, Molly discovers her fellow classmates who looked to have been partying their scholastic years away have also gotten accepted to prestigious institutions as well. How is this possible? Well, Molly isn’t sure, but she sees this party as their last chance to have the fun they somehow denied themselves during their time in high school.

Like many great movies, “Booksmart” isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey. Molly and Amy’s determination to get to Nick’s party is quickly thwarted by the fact they have no idea where it is. As a result, they are forced to endure detours to other parties they did not plan on going to, cell phones which are quickly drained of all their energy, and teachers who either have unexpected side jobs or have forever sworn off drinking certain smoothies from Jamba Juice.

“Booksmart” marks the feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, an actress as strikingly intelligent as she is fiercely beautiful. She has said “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless” served as inspirations for this film, and she has taken the best parts from each of them and created something which feels wonderfully unique. It has many laughs and heartbreaking moments which we can all relate to as, regardless of the advances in technology, our high school years were always emotional battlefields which left us with psychic scars which never fully heal.

Along with a cleverly crafted screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, Wilde takes the time to explore the various personalities high school has to offer, and of the cliques they have long since been consigned to. But as the story goes on, these same individuals get a chance to peel back the façade given to them by their classmates to where we see people trying to survive these rough and tumble years as rumors about their supposed behavior still spread like wildfires which can never be easily put out. It’s moments like these I always cherish in high school movies as no one is ever what they appear to be on the surface, and this is what I think “Booksmart” is truly about; looking past what you think you see to discover what is really there, and making us see we are all the same.

Both Davidson and Antsler are perfectly cast as Molly and Amy to where they make you believe they have been best friends forever. We root for them as they look to live their last night as high schoolers to the fullest, and we feel for them as they eventually realize they may never see each other again for the longest time after this year is over. And yes, the two have a tense confrontation when they reveal truths which should have been confronted ages ago, and Wilde sticks the knife in deeper by muting their conversation as the looks on their faces is enough to illustrate the painful truths and grudges which have now forced their way to the surface.

Another memorable performance comes from Billie Lourd as Gigi, a gleefully blissed-out individual who somehow shows up at every high school party Molly and Amy are at. She is a riot throughout and inhabits her character with such wonderful abandon to where I believe Silberman when she said extra scenes were written for Lourd as everyone was really impressed with her performance.

In addition, there are some nice cameos from Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow who play Amy’s parents and have prepared a dinner with food names which need to be heard to be fully appreciated. Jason Sudeikis has some choice moments as school principal Jordan Brown who shows up unexpectedly throughout the film. And Diana Silvers has some strong scenes as Hope, a seemingly mean school girl who eventually lets her poker face down.

Wilde also has wonderful collaborators in Dan the Automator who composed the energetic film score, and cinematographer Jason McCormack who gives the visuals a reality we can relate to as well as a fantastical quality when our heroines slip into their imaginations to where one dance sequence looks like it was shot by Benoît Debie.

“Booksmart” arrives in theaters one year after “Eighth Grade,” a film about the worst year in our lives. “Booksmart” isn’t quite as brutal as it takes place in a time when the divisions between teenagers begin to disappear as they are all about to advance to another, and more vulnerable, stage in their lives. Still, it proves to be as entertaining, thoughtful and at times as heartbreaking. While it may invite easy comparison with “Superbad,” it is by no means a gender reversed remake of it. I don’t know how many out there think it is, but it is worth pointing this out here.

In a time when summer blockbusters and superhero movies reign supreme at the box office, a movie like this can get buried too easily. Here’s hoping “Booksmart” gets the audience it deserves in one way or another. And after you have watched it, you will agree that panda bears will never, ever be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Race

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2015 was a year where the biopic genre had a major resurgence with movies like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Love & Mercy.” Most biopics in recent years have been strictly by-the-numbers affairs which give us historical footnotes without going into much depth about the people they are about, but those two movies brought their subjects to life in a most wonderfully vivid way. “Race,” the biopic about gold medalist Jesse Owens which should have made years ago, will not rank among the best of the genre and starts off as a by-the-numbers affair, but it does get better as it goes along as we watch this iconic African American athlete get ready for the Olympics.

Instead of looking at Owens’ whole life, “Race” focuses on the years he went to college and began training with Coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) who molds his running talent into something even better. Despite the adversity he and other African Americans face on the university campus, Owens soon becomes a star athlete and gets selected to compete in the Olympic Games. But these are the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin which was under the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy. On top of dealing with racism in America, Owens also has to deal with a dictator who will not be quick to celebrate any victory he could possibly achieve.

“Race” gets off to a rocky start as it gives us snapshots of Owens’ life without much in the way of introspection. We briefly see the troubled relationship between him and his father in a wordless scene, but it’s never clear why these two aren’t getting along. To its credit, it doesn’t gloss over Owens’ affair which almost destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend and daughter, and it makes for some strong scenes as he desperately tries to win her back.

The movie, however, does get better when we watch Owens finding success, and there is a subplot involving Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt) who battle over whether or not America should even participate in these Olympic Games. We also get to see Carice van Houten as Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose life could easily inspire a fascinating biopic on its own. Indeed, the politics behind these games help to make “Race” more riveting as it makes us see just how high the stakes were for everyone involved. Had it just focused on Owens, it would have been anti-climactic as we know how successful he would be at those Olympic Games.

“Race” was directed by Stephen Hopkins whose resume is all over the map as he has gone from making “A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child” and “Predator 2” to helming episodes of “24” and the acclaimed HBO movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.” He does give the movie an amazing scene in which Owens enters the Berlin Stadium, and he puts us right into the man’s shoes as he works to tune out all the other voices yelling at him. Some biopics keep you at arm’s length away from their main subject, but this one makes you feel what it’s like to be Owens as Hopkins surrounds him with his camera to where we quickly come to understand what it’s like to be Owens at this moment. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, and he manages to not let this affect him as he makes his way to the starting line.

Playing Owens is Stephan James who played civil rights activist John Lewis in “Selma,” and he has been given the daunting task of humanizing such an iconic human being. But he succeeds as he gives us an Owens full of strengths and flaws like anyone else, and he never succumbs to portraying this gold medalist as some sort of superhuman. Had James done that, this movie could have easily fallen apart.

But the performance in “Race” I was most impressed with was Jason Sudeikis’ as Coach Larry Snyder. Sudeikis is best known for his time on “Saturday Night Live,” but the fact that he pulls off a first-rate dramatic performance here did not surprise me. Any actor or actress who can do comedy can certainly do drama as making people cry is a lot easier than making people laugh, but Sudeikis ends up giving this movie its most complex character. Snyder comes across as a hard ass when it comes to coaching his runners, but we come to see what fuels his commitment to them and of the things he was unable to accomplish as a runner himself. Sudeikis also has a great scene where he shows Owens and his team how successfully one can shout out opposing voices yelling at him in the background. He sells this scene for all it’s worth, and it makes me look forward to whatever this former “SNL” star decides to take on next.

“Race” is not going to go down as one of the best biopics ever made, but it is a compelling one all the same. While it does fall victim to reducing its subject’s life down to mere footnotes at the movie’s start, it does improve as we learn more about Owens and of the obstacles placed in his path when he decides to participate in the Olympic Games. In many ways, we should be thankful any biopic about Jesse Owens finally made it to the big screen as this movie should have been made years ago. Could it have been a better movie? Sure, but this one will do for now.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day” is the kind of movie I feared “The Meddler” would be, a formulaic comedy filled with overused stereotypes and cinematic traps filmmakers easily fall victim to. But even though it was directed by Garry Marshall who is well known for overdoing sentimentality in his films, nothing prepared me for how cloying and utterly contrived this movie ended up being. It’s like a network sitcom which never made it pass the pilot stage but somehow got turned into a movie for no discernable reason. Having already laid waste to New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, Marshall shows no hesitation in belittling another holiday, and one with much more meaning than others.

The movie starts, of course, a few days before Mother’s Day which allows us to meet a group of people who at first have little, if any, connection with one another, but we know this is going to change from the get go. There’s single mother Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) who’s raising her two young boys by herself while her ex-husband Henry (Timothy Olyphant) spends time with his new wife Tina (Shay Mitchell) who looks like she has yet to reach the age of 30. Next we have successful book writer Miranda (Julia Roberts) whom we see selling jewelry on television and is dedicated to her career more than anything else. Then there is Kristin (Britt Robertson) who lives with her boyfriend Zack (Jack Whitehall) and their baby girl. Zack is an aspiring comedian who longs to marry Kristin, but she feels not yet ready to commit for reasons which eventually become clear. And let’s not forget Jesse (Kate Hudson), wife to Indian doctor Russell (Aasif Mandvi) who knows her parents will never approve of him or her sister who has since come out as gay.

Oh yeah, there’s also the grieving widower Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) whose wife died while serving in the military overseas, and he is left to raise their daughters on his own. The women at the fitness club he works at are eager to set him up with somebody, but he is hesitant to start dating again. And then he runs into Sandy at the local supermarket and… well, you have a pretty good idea of what happens from there.

What bothered me so much about “Mother’s Day” was how cloying and artificial the whole movie felt. Granted, not every movie can feature down to earth characters in relatable situations like “The Meddler” did, but everything here felt so one-dimensional and done by the numbers. Marshall has directed great movies in the past like “The Flamingo Kid,” “Nothing in Common” and “Pretty Women” which turned Julia Roberts into a movie star, and he’s the same guy who gave us the television classics “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.” I even have good things to say about “The Princess Diaries” which introduced Anne Hathaway to the world. But after all these years, you’d think he would be able to give us a movie filled with more than standard situations and cardboard-cutout characters. I refuse to deride his horrible direction as the result of old age because that’s just cruel, but he has done so much better than this tripe.

It’s a real shame because the cast is great and they do their best with material which is far beneath them. Aniston is wonderful as a single mom, and that’s even though her work here doesn’t compare to her underappreciated performances in “The Good Girl” and “Cake.” Sudeikis has proven, in a way he should not have had to, how he can be a strong actor thanks to his performance in “Race,” and he’s wasted here in a role he is far more believable in than many would expect. Hudson, who has attracted mediocre material ever since her star-making turn in “Almost Famous,” does look very relaxed in her performance which gives us hope she will eventually star in a movie worthy of her talents.

But if there’s anyone in “Mother’s Day” who pulls off a truly emotionally honest performance, let alone a powerful moment, it’s Roberts. The scene where she explains to her daughter why she gave her up for adoption proves to be more heart-rending than what the rest of the movie ever could have promised us, and it reminds us why she remains a beloved movie star after all these years. Never mind how the situation is completely contrived as it is presented here. Roberts plays it with a lot of heart and wins us over regardless of how bad this movie truly is.

It’s a shame to see Mandvi, so great on “The Daily Show,” playing nothing more than an Indian stereotype who just happens to be a doctor. Loni Love plays Kimberly, an African-American who is taking pole dancing classes but fumbles them as she is overweight. Kimberly proves to be as funny a character as any Eddie Murphy played in “Norbit,” and no one should mistake this as a compliment. The more Marshall relies on stereotypes, the more this movie sinks into an abyss of awfulness.

But the actors I felt sorriest for were Margo Martindale and Robert Pine who played Jesse’s parents in the movie. They are presented as a couple of very conservative parents who are about to wake up to just how liberal their daughters are. Of course, they are shocked by the love partners their daughters have chosen to spend their lives with, but that they eventually come to accept their decisions in life as well as their grandchildren comes across as no surprise whatsoever. Martindale in particular is a tremendous actress, so her role here feels like an enormous waste of her time as she is forced to portray a type rather than an actual character.

The more I watched “Mother’s Day,” the more nauseous I became. This is such an emotionally manipulative movie that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This movie has a running time of two hours, and it became increasingly torturous the longer it goes on. While it may have its heart in the right place, it still feels like a gigantic insult to the intelligence. Surely everyone involved with this crap could have come up with something infinitely better, right?

“Mother’s Day” is meant to give tribute to all the mothers out there, but there are so many other movies out there like this which put this one to shame. Regardless of its intentions, it is inescapably awful and deserving of the derision bound to come its way. If you are going to take your mother to a movie this year, take her to see “The Meddler” instead. Taking her to see “Mother’s Day” won’t seem all that different from taking her to see the camp classic “Mommie Dearest” or Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” and that’s saying a lot.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

½* out of * * * *