Booksmart (2019)


Let’s face it. The coming-of-age, high school graduation comedy/drama has been done to death. And then some. And yet, in the hands of a gifted new filmmaker, apparently, it can be something fresh, something special, a thing of beauty. Case in point: Booksmart, starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, a coming-of-age, high school graduation comedy/drama about a couple of high achievers who suddenly realize their academic focus has prevented them from having any actual fun… and they have one night before graduation to fix it. (Ironically, these smart girls are dead wrong. They’ve been having more fun with each other in their cute, witty, supportive friendship than most high schoolers could even imagine.) First-time director Olivia Wilde has plenty of experience acting in films, all the way back to 2004’s The Girl Next Door (the one about the prostitute, not the one about the real-life porn star—and they say there are no good roles for women!?). But with the whip-smart Booksmart, Wilde is making her debut behind the camera. The cynical among us might therefore have expected the film to be choc-o-bloc with newbie mistakes and predictable scenarios. It isn’t. It’s what we critics like to call “remarkably assured.” And, given that Wilde has chosen the oft-done coming-of-age, high school graduation comedy/drama as her proving ground, her success is even more impressive. Booksmart is pretty much flawless, in fact, like Leftfield’s first album or Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. It’s a film that justice in a short review of this type cannot serve. (Eek! Where’s my editor when I need her?). You really need to watch and experience Booksmart to appreciate the outstanding performances—and palpable chemistry—of its young leads, the well-rounded supporting cast (barely a villain among them), the sparkling music of its soundtrack, the take-no-prisoners script (by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman). Speaking of which, Wilde—the star of dubious B-movies Tron: Legacy and Drinking Buddies to name but a couple of her 50-odd acting gigs—was once quoted as saying “I’ve worked with a lot of the greatest guys in the business, and now I am slowly working with more and more women. We don’t really get to work together, the girls, so much.” Well, she has now, and the result is funny and poignant and, yes, pretty much flawless.

(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth


Tater Tot & Patton (2019)


“Princess” Andie (Jessica Rothe) has flown in from L.A. to spend an undisclosed amount of time on her Uncle Erwin’s farm in no name, South Dakota. (Erwin is played by Bates Wilder whom I don’t recall seeing before despite 49 IMDb acting credits.) “So. Why are you here?” the burly bearded rancher finally asks his college-raised niece, whom he refers to as Tater Tot, over dinner that first night. “You ever been to rehab? I’d take this farm any day,” she scoffs.
     Why Tater Tot, exactly?
     Andie: “Y’know, I don’t remember you at all.”
     Erwin: “I remember you. You was a little tater tot, four years old, running around all naked with a big old bucket of water. You’d fill it up and pour it on people you didn’t like.”
     Turns out Erwin could use some rehabbing himself. He was a drunk back when Andie was tottering around, dumping water on people, and he’s a drunk now. Bottle caps litter the kitchen floor, there’s always a six-pack slung in the back of his beat-up pick-up, and if he’s not eating something out of a can—hash, beans, pork and beans—Erwin’ll be downing a cold one with a raw egg in it. It’s true: there’s not a single vegetable to be found within a hundred mile radius, much to Andie’s chagrin. “Isn’t this a farm?” she questions, incredulously. “No, it’s a ranch.” There’s also no phone service, no Wi-Fi, and no A/C.
     Tater Tot & Patton sounds like a broad fish-out-of-water tale with all the obvious comedic elements in play. It’s not. It’s real and often quite touching, its intergenerational conflicts full of truth. This is mostly due to the performances of its two leads which are excellent, sometimes even sublime.
     Nothing earth-shatteringly dramatic happens in the film; no dying, no unplanned pregnancies, no bovine or lawnmower accidents. It’s quietly observational in nature, with Rothe (Happy Death Day and its sequel) and Wilder (2015’s Joy) fully inhabiting their at-odds characters. It looks good (cinematography by Per) and sounds good (score by Garth Stevenson) and writer/director Andrew Kightlinger writes and directs as though he’s been doing this for years. He hasn’t; this is only his second feature film after, as it happens, another alien invasion flick (Dust of War).
     And why Patton?
     [After an unsavory incident involving some disrespect, a trashed smartphone, and lots of cussing] “You’re here, child, no matter how much you stick in my craw. I am the King. I am the Queen. I’m General George S. freakin’ Patton and I’m God. And you are, and will always be, Tater Tot.”

(c) 2019 David N. Butterworth