My Bedroom, My Choice: The Private Worlds of Teenage Girls in Booksmart
High school corridors can feel like war zones, but bedrooms hold the secret to two young heroes’ identity in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart. Marina Vuotto takes a trip in to the private worlds of Molly and Amy to pinpoint what makes the 2019 teenage girl tick.
What did your teenage bedroom look like? Mine had photocopies of passages from my favourite books up on the walls, bad homemade art, film posters, a Frida Kahlo self-portrait I’d ripped from a magazine, and a Union Jack flag (to remind myself that, one day, I would move to London). Eventually I did move to London, while my teenage bedroom remained intact back home, a perfect manifestation of who I was and who I wanted to be a few years ago.
I was a shy teenager, too quiet to voice my own interests and personality, so I made a big deal out of showing what I liked, rather than talking about it. My room had the same performative quality that applied to my clothing choices, the stickers I carefully selected to put on my laptop, or the excessive care I put into maintaining my social media accounts. I needed my taste to speak for me, and objects to speak for my taste. This is why teenage bedrooms are so crucial in coming-of-age films: they’re as close to a physical representation of its inhabitants’ inner world as you can get. If they’re done well, they can tell a whole backstory and express a personality in a single shot.
In this respect, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is perfect. In the intimate physical worlds of Amy and Molly, I recognised the film’s heroines instantly. The first bedroom we see is Molly’s: pink walls, white furniture, shelves stacked with school books. A Yale flag hanging in the corner, trophies lying around, a valedictorian gown proudly on show. Molly’s a smart girl, this much everyone knows. She could be described as a good girl: diligent, gifted at school, a girl who spends more time studying in her bedroom than partying.
But she’s not a quiet girl, and certainly not remissive in any way. Along with her trophies and books, pictures of her rebellious heroines proudly stand on her bedroom shelves – Michelle Obama, the suffragettes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I look at the poster of the documentary RBG I have in my own room. Next to these photos, in Molly’s room, sits a book by Gloria Steinem, and a “We Should All Be Feminists” poster. I think of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s books in my flatmate’s bedroom, part of a feminist book collection that I constantly borrow from. I realise she’s just like Molly: brilliant, determined, strong, tidy.
We then see the bedroom of Molly’s best friend, Amy, and I see myself. It’s much messier, with flowery wallpaper covered with posters stuck to the wall with blu-tack: pictures of writers, Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, paintings and photos. Amy is romantic, shyer and more sensitive than Molly. She mostly keeps to herself, and to her best friend. There are things that not even Molly knows until she mercilessly teases them out of Amy – such as the use Amy makes of Ling Ling, her old stuffed panda, sitting on one of her tallest shelves.
This shyness doesn’t keep her from actively fighting against all injustices she sees in the world. Next to Amy’s childhood toys and literary heroes, her bedroom walls are covered with handmade signs: “Free Palestine”, “Time’s Up”, “My Body, My Choice”, “Black Lives Matter”. I look at the “No Human Is Illegal” sign in my bedroom, the one I held up high during the Anti-Trump march, surrounded by film posters. I realise, from my own university dorm, that Amy’s world after her return from Botswana could end up looking a lot like mine.
Booksmart celebrates its protagonists’ commitment to feminism and social justice, without condescension or irony. Humour, yes: there’s a degree of naiveté in Amy’s commitment to all humanitarian causes, ever, and the comedic value in Molly’s plan to become “the youngest justice in the Supreme Court” speaks loudly. But it’s clear that these beliefs are always sincere – when you’re a teenager, your room is your own private world. There’s no one to lie to, and you don’t decorate it with political slogans unless they truly matter.
There’s a real sense of poetry in teenage bedrooms, and Booksmart’s production designer Katie Byron perfectly captures the complex ambition to exhibit your personality, mixing childhood memories and expectations for the future, and every element from the outside world that make it into the teenager’s private sanctuary. Spaces are created that are easily identifiable by a lot of young women right now. In every poetic detail and well-chosen memory, we can see ourselves living in Amy and Molly’s bedrooms, and we can see them living in ours. The crucial element that roots Booksmart so firmly in the present is a social awareness that we can’t afford not to have, not even as teenagers, one that inevitably seeps through our doors, and ends up on our walls.
Marina Vuotto (@sobmarina) is a cinema worker by night and a freelance writer by day. She loves writing about girls and feelings and you can find her doing that, amongst other things, on Reel Honey, Much Ado About Cinema, and Screen Queens.