|Original caricature by Jeff York of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in BOOKSMART. (copyright 2019)
A funny thing happened on the way of the film BOOKSMART being consigned to the trash heap of comedies that bombed at the box office despite stellar reviews…
…it actually became a qualified hit.
Indeed, despite being called a “bomb” by much of the national entertainment media for only coming in sixth its opening weekend just under three weeks ago, BOOKSMART has managed to remain in the top 10 despite being in the thick of the burgeoning summer season. (More on that later.) And it made 1.5 million this past weekend, 1.3 the weekend before that, and 2.7 during its opening three days.
All told, that puts its box office performance at over 17 million in three weeks, and the steady word-of-mouth seems to be sustaining it. That, along with a concerted effort by its many supporters to keep it top-of-mind on social media, could propel this film to make well over 25 million during its initial run. And if BOOKSMART reaches that mark, it will be better than many films that have not been castigated as failures. In fact, BOOKSMART will likely best the box office performance of Oscar winners like CALL ME BY YOUR NAME ($18 million), ROOM ($16 million), and WHIPLASH ($14 million), according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
This doesn’t erase the multitude of mistakes that Annapurna, partnered with United Artists, made in releasing the film. After incredible buzz coming out of 2019’s SXSW, the studios launched BOOKSMART on 2,505 screens. Whew! That’s an astonishing sign of confidence that the studios had in the film, but it was probably too ambitious for a quirky, character-driven comedy without stars, headed by female leads, and opening in the thick of summer actioners with existing brand value.
Was BOOKSMART ever going to be able to compete with the likes of John Wick and Godzilla? Not really. But the fact that the film has remained in the top 10 at the box office despite almost a dozen summer releases crowding the cineplexes around it is almost miraculous. Just as impressive is how the rebellion against those painting BOOKSMART as a failure has really taken the internet by storm.
Kudos to director Olivia Wilde and her stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever for never saying “die.” They’ve tweeted, talked up, given interviews, and shared all kinds of press and word-of-mouth about BOOKSMART everywhere. As they should. The film is a remarkable achievement. Yes, the film should’ve been released during a less crowded month, say late August, and it would’ve helped if the poster didn’t make the whole shebang look like a moody teen drama. But those who’ve seen the movie, along with those who made BOOKSMART, know what it is and how worthy it is of our attention. In the final analysis, it is a side-splittingly funny entertainment about two lovable nerds trying to go out with a bang their senior year of high school, one part LADY BIRD, two parts SUPERBAD, and all parts fantastic.
I am late to the dance on this one myself, having missed the critics’ screening of it, let alone the opening weekend of BOOKSMART. But I did make it the second weekend and returned again to see it its third. So far, it’s my favorite film of 2019, and will readily place on my 10 Best List at the end of the year. It’s also a film that I cannot get out of my head because of how impressive it is – – the writing, directing, performances, editing, camera work, and soundtrack are exemplary.
Its critical reputation should be uttered in the same sentence as LADY BIRD and EIGHTH GRADE as it is an equally sharp comedy about high school, but even more importantly, a brilliant examination about what it means to be an American girl in our modern age. All three films do the miraculous – they root for our heroine(s), yet never dole out excessive punishment for their transgressions. Even male character-centered coming-of-age comedies are usually not that generous. In BOOKSMART, Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) may be the kind of girls derided by gossips, male lotharios, and pissy one-percenters, but the two let such crap roll off their backs.
The scene that epitomized such savviness occurs in a high school bathroom when Molly overhears two male classmates trashing her **ckability and are joined in their condemnation by one of the more popular girls. Molly exits the stall quietly, and then coolly and calmly throws the ball back into their court. She points out their immaturity and how it will lead to their inevitable doom after high school. But when the bullies confess that they’re all going to thrive because two are going to Ivy League schools, while the third has already been hired to work for Google, Molly’s case dissolves.
Does she break down, cry, or let them get the best of her? As played by the marvelous Feldstein, an actress whose eyes convey everything, Molly cannot hide her rage, true, but these malcontents will not break her. Granted, somehow they’ve managed to forge a path to success, one that Molly had to scrape and claw for, but despite her outrage, Molly doesn’t collapse into a heap of pathos. Instead, she uses her ire to go and push her friend Amy to join her in a “last hurrah,” one where they’ll party like it’s 1999. All this will happen before they return to form and accept their pigskins the following afternoon as the academia wunderkinds everyone knows them to be.
From there, the film becomes a hilarious series of misstarts, detours, and screw-ups as they try to find a classmate’s party, and indeed in all their raucous chaos is where the film earns its R rating. Yet, even with all of the craziness in their adventures together, this year’s best comedy manages to triumph additionally as one of the best love stories of the year too. Even though both Molly and Amy desire other classmates, the genuine article of love is to be found in their deep and unbreakable friendship with each other. The height of the drama, amongst the comedy, comes when they explode at each other during the party, after being betrayed by their would-be trysts.
Again, neither is devastated by being rejected, and the film doesn’t wallow in pity. Molly and Amy are hurt, and angry, yes, and they take it out on each other when they should be yelling at their callow lust objects, but they’re not doomed as some teen comedies would have done in the third act. And here is where the film wholly wins over its audience, I think, and why the word-of-mouth has kept it in the top 10. Even with the sex jokes, the outrageous secondary characters, a narrative run-in with a serial killer, and plenty of screeching tires, masturbation jokes, ill-fated Uber rides, and one drug-induced fantasy sequence where the two girls turn into Barbie versions of themselves, what really resonates the strongest in the film is its unstoppable affection for these two wondrous, young women. Molly and Amy wholly deserve our respect, admiration, and love. They deserve each other too, and the love and care that only such immense friendship can provide.
In the chatter of Hollywood, you hear a lot about “four-quadrant films.” Such releases are those that can appeal to all four segments of the marketplace – older audiences, younger audiences, male audiences, and female audiences. I don’t know if BOOKSMART can hope to compete with most tentpoles aimed at all four segmentations, but I’m decades past high school, let alone a male, and this film affected me wholly. I love it and have been one of those talking it up to anyone who will listen. And indeed, I’m writing about it here now to hopefully give the sterling film even more momentum.
Kudos to Wilde, the exceptional actress who here shows a simply brilliant talent behind the camera, and to the sensational writers (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman) who penned the film, and to its across-the-board stellar cast. They have all made a marvel of a film, and one that everyone should see and see again. You’ll laugh, you might even cry a little, and for certain you will fall in love with Molly and Amy. Additionally, dollars to donuts, you’ll get the film into the box office hit column too. Go!