Here’s what Booksmart gets right about LGBT representation

Originally published in The National Student in June 2019.

“Dude, scissoring is not a thing.”

One of the first conversations we hear between Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) in Olivia Wilde’s debut feature Booksmart is about lesbian sex. The two best friends are eating lunch outside their high school cafeteria in the Californian sunshine, on their last day of senior year.  

There’s no announcement or corny exposition; Amy is just a teenager with a crush, and that crush happens to be on a girl. 

Amy has a storyline that differs from other lesbian characters in mainstream teen movies. Her story is not focussed on coming out – she has already been out for two years – and her sexuality is never a punchline. The film also doesn’t ‘bury its gays’ – that is, it doesn’t indulge in cheap tragedy, as so many movies about young LGBT people tend to do. 

Moreover, lesbianism is never fetishised; Amy and Hope’s (attempted) sex scene is awkward, funny, and not at all sexy. It is not filmed for the male gaze. In a recent Buzzfeed article, Olivia Wilde said she wanted to treat Amy’s sexuality as “a non-issue.”

“It was really meaningful for me to watch the film,” said Beanie Feldstein, of Lady Bird fame, after its premiere at SXSW Film Festival, because “my partner’s a woman.”

She spoke of how moved she was during Amy’s sex scene with classmate Hope (Diana Silvers): “Representation is really important. I think if I could have seen our film earlier, I think I maybe would have found myself a bit sooner.”

This was the first time Feldstein had publically mentioned her sexuality, and like Amy in the movie it’s been largely treated as a non-issue by the press and the public. It’s refreshing. 

What seems to have particularly appealed to Feldstein is the believability. Dever said, “In hookup scenes that I’ve seen in movies, they make it look, like, pretty seamless and easy, and, like sexy and cool. But it really isn’t. We wanted to keep in all of those awkward moments that you have when you’re hooking up with someone for the first time.” 

“We wanted to tell a story that moved beyond what we typically see when it comes to queer-identifying characters, when it’s all about the coming out and the stress around it,” Wilde told Buzzfeed News. So many stories of LGBT youth onscreen involve a fight against homophobic violence, a fight against themselves, their families, their peers. This may be a reality for many young people, but queer teenagers deserve to see fictional versions of themselves happy and accepted, too. Cinema is often escapism, after all. 

With Booksmart, Wilde shows that sexuality can be a non-issue but still explored with sensitivity and humour. “We don’t just say Amy is queer, and then we move on from it,” said Dever. “We actually see her explore her sexuality in this movie.” Her crush on Ryan is a source of excitement and agony throughout the film and focused on as much – if not more than – Molly’s infatuation with popular boy Nick. 

Amy is not the only gay person in her class, either, so it doesn’t feel like an act of tokenism. Noah Galvin, who plays flamboyant theatre enthusiast George, praised Booksmart for the way it allows queer characters “to have rich interior lives.” 

Galvin’s character was originally meant to be a straight woman. Austin Crute, who plays George’s friend Alan, said, “We’ve all seen the Ryan/Sharpay dynamic portrayed before,” referring to the iconic High School Musical duo. “Usually the gay character is the best friend, the condiment, the side item, the seasoning.”

It’s not a perfect representation, of course (does such a thing exist?). Amy is white and middle class and her upcoming trip to Botswana has a faint whiff of eau-de-voluntourism. Such is the burden of representation, but it’s not Olivia Wilde’s job to represent an all-encompassing gay teenage experience. 

What Wilde does do, however, is make a film that is bold, clever, and a breath of fresh air. Booksmart redefines our preconceptions of studio comedies, teen high school movies, and the romcom. It may not be groundbreaking in terms of content, but it breaks ground in the way it brings it into the mainstream.

If you go to see one film at the cinema this Pride Month, make it Booksmart.

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