By the time I got to the theaters last month to see “Booksmart,” actor Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, it had already engendered a ton of hand-wringing over its poor box office performance relative to its widespread critical plaudits. Financially, it was declared dead on arrival. I’m a fan of independent movies, and I like stories about women made by women, so I figured I’d buy a ticket and do my part in supporting the kind of cinema that I want to see more of. Unfortunately I found “Booksmart” incredibly unpleasant to watch. Not only are its plot and characters remarkably—even aggressively—flimsy and inconsistent, but it traffics in a vision of teenagers as slightly downsized twenty-somethings—with all of the ravenous consumer and sexual appetites of urban professionals, hampered only by modestly limited spending power—that I personally find to be lazy and offensive.
My wife and I actually got into a bit of an argument over how “Booksmart” compares with “Always Be My Maybe,” which was released on Netflix at almost exactly the same time. “Always” is another diversity breakthrough in that it was written by and starred two Asian American leads, and was set in a milieu that’s almost entirely Asian American. I wouldn’t make the case that “Always Be My Maybe” is a masterpiece, but I did think the essential motivations of its plot and characters followed sound logic, which in my view is a claim that you can’t make for “Booksmart.” That’s really all I want from most movies: a reasonably accurate simulacrum of the way real people act and behave, regardless of how outlandish or unrealistic their circumstances might be. Plus, if the movie bills itself as a comedy, it would be nice if it was also genuinely funny. I bursted out laughing several times during “Always Be My Maybe.” I think I might have audibly chuckled once during “Booksmart.”
One more comment about “Booksmart”: despite my distaste for it, I left it more convinced than ever that Beanie Feldstein, one of its two leads, is among the most watchable actors working today. She’s a dynamo.
Speaking of independent cinema, I also went to see “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a startlingly rich portrait of gentrification told from the perspective of utterly unique African American characters. I couldn’t believe my eyes for the first ten or fifteen minutes; first-time director Joe Talbot practically plows over you with the assuredness of his vision. The rest of the movie can’t quite live up to its opening, but it’s never less than mesmerizing.
Unfortunately, in the third act Talbot also succumbs to a common trap in auteurist filmmaking: trying to make his point through the conceit of a play staged by his characters. I’ve learned through many bad experiences that a play-within-a-film is almost invariably a signal both that the director and screenwriter are very serious and that they are stumped as to how to present their very important ideas. John Turturro’s horrific “Illuminata” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s pompous “Birdman” are two debacles I barely endured that come to mind. Luckily “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” never stoops as low as those and is well worth a watch. I can’t wait to see what Talbot does next.
Aside from that it was a relatively light month of movie watching. Here is my full list of all twelve that I saw.
“Always Be My Maybe” (2019) Keanu’s cameo got the most attention, and it’s not even the best part!
“The Sting” (1973) Rewatched. An almost perfect little fairy tale of the confidence game.