‘Booksmart’ Is Refreshingly Real On How It’s Hard To Be A Woman With Ambition

The teen comedy nails the ways in which strong women — from high school valedictorians to presidential candidates — often pay a price for being ambitious.

In the new movie “Booksmart,” high school senior Molly (Beanie Feldstein) resolves to attend a blowout house party the night before graduation, worrying that she and her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) will become “the girls who missed out” on fun.

“We are not one-dimensional! We are smart! And fun!” Molly, the Yale-bound class president and valedictorian, declares.

Molly’s plan stems from a horrific realization, revealed in a horror movie-style slow-motion sequence. To her surprise, several of the popular kids inform her that they got into elite colleges too, despite how little work they appear to do. (Molly describes class vice president Nick as “allergic to work.”)

The disdain is mutual: Earlier in the movie, Molly overhears some of them in the bathroom, denigrating her as a no-nonsense, workaholic shrew.

“She always acts like she’s 40,” one of them says.

“Her vagina is probably stuffed with diplomas,” another says.

Molly emerges from her bathroom stall.

“Soon, it’s going to be stuffed with job offers, glossy [magazine] profiles, and commendations from the governor!” she retorts, determined to prove that her work ethic will pay off “while you guys were all taking AP Handjobs.”

Beanie Feldstein (left) and Kaitlyn Dever (right) in "Booksmart."
Beanie Feldstein (left) and Kaitlyn Dever (right) in "Booksmart."
Annapurna Pictures

Cut from the same cloth as similarly sharp comedies about female adolescence — from classics like “Clueless” to recent gems like “Eighth Grade,” “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Lady Bird” (also featuring Feldstein) — actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a wonderful showcase for Feldstein and Dever, whose dynamism and rat-a-tat dialogue deliver laugh after laugh.

Where this unabashedly feminist film truly excels is how it crystallizes the ways in which being a woman with ambition is often seen as a liability. Molly’s determination to prove that she and Amy are both smart and fun illustrates a real-life problem: what researchers have called a “double bind” for strong and ambitious women, for whom competence and charisma are seen as mutually exclusive.

The film opens on Molly waking up and meditating to a motivational recording — among many ingenious visual details that efficiently introduce exactly who these characters are: smart, capable young women constantly fighting against perceptions from their peers that they take themselves too seriously.

“Fuck those losers. Fuck them in their stupid fucking faces,” the voice on the recording (a spot-on Maya Rudolph) says, as the camera pans around Molly’s bedroom, decorated with pictures of inspirational women like former first lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Similarly, activist Amy — headed for Columbia after a stint in Botswana to help women make their own tampons — has labeled her bedroom door “A Room of One’s Own” and adorned her walls with Women’s March posters like “We Are Not Ovary-Acting.”

Molly carries around a Sharpie to correct grammatical errors in bathroom graffiti (“your ugly”). Amy’s idea of risky behavior? Accidentally trying a pot brownie while on a Model United Nations trip to Amsterdam. The pair recounts how they got fake IDs — to get 24-hour access to college libraries.

In all of its humorous specificity, “Booksmart” builds on the relatively few three-dimensional depictions of women in pop culture fighting the battle of getting recognized for working hard.

In 1987’s “Broadcast News,” brilliant television news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) continually feels disdain when her vain colleague, reporter and anchor Tom Grunik (William Hurt), lands assignment after assignment, despite freely admitting that he often doesn’t understand the news that he’s reading.

When a male network executive puts the unprepared Grunik in the anchor chair for a breaking news story, Jane argues that he has made the wrong decision.

“It must be nice,” the executive growls back at her, “to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.”

“No, it’s awful,” she replies.

As the only person who cares about her high school election, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the protagonist of 1999’s “Election,” thinks she’ll secure an easy victory — until her bitter faculty adviser (Matthew Broderick) recruits a popular kid to enter the race.

“They think they can all of a sudden, one day, out of the blue, waltz right in with no qualifications whatsoever, and try to take away what other people have worked for very, very hard, their entire lives,” Tracy says bitterly. “No, it didn’t bother me at all.”

On TV’s beloved “Parks and Recreation,” the double bind facing public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) comes into sharp relief when she runs for city council against Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd), the hapless and clueless heir to his family’s candy company. Despite having zero political experience, Newport initially earns voters’ sympathy and the benefit of the doubt — though Leslie later ekes out a win.

Both “Election” and “Parks and Recreation” prompted several re-examinations during the 2016 presidential election, which observed how they seemed to have eerily presaged the sexist double standards that Hillary Clinton faced against Donald Trump.

The scrutiny that comes with being a smart woman with ambition has already emerged in the early stages of the 2020 presidential campaign, such as how Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has weathered criticism for being too “wonky” and “cold or aloof.” (One conservative columnist even dubbed her “Senator Tracy Flick.”)

Throughout “Booksmart,” which takes darker turns in its second and third acts, Molly and Amy grapple with their identities and reach complex conclusions about who they are, demonstrating the complicated narrative behind women with ambition.

But fittingly, their ambition works to their advantage in their quest to find the address of the party, which they don’t have because they weren’t cool enough to be invited.

After some ill-fated detours, they realize that they can do what they do best — “motherfucking homework,” as Amy says ― before the film cuts to a sequence at the library, where they look up property records. Through some further brainstorming and sleuthing, as well as some more comic pratfalls, they land the address of the party. While ambitious women in both fiction and in real life are still fighting for recognition, Molly and Amy’s book smarts, at least in this instance, aren’t a liability, but a strength — and they get to be seen as smart and fun.

“Booksmart” is now playing in theaters.

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