"Booksmart": Helping Our Teens Become Discerning Christians

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"Booksmart" by Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP (CatholicMom.com)

Actors Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever on the set of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

I often come across parents who find it so frustrating to teach their children good values and especially Gospel values when the media they consume or that is all around them speaks to the opposite. What do we do when violence, sex, and vulgarity seem to be the accepted way of living in this popular media culture? How can we raise children who are smart, grounded, critical thinkers in a culture of relativism and hedonism?

I recently saw the highly rated coming-of-age film, Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde and written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel ,and Katie Silberman. It stars Beanie Feldstein as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy who are best friends and high school seniors. They realize that upon graduating they, who focused on their studies their entire high school years, are not the only ones accepted into the top colleges of the country. The party-going teens also made it into Ivy League schools. So, they decide to “live it up” all in one night before graduation since they “missed out” on living their teen years to the fullest. A raunchy romp ensues, comparable to Superbad.

Even though it underperformed at the box office according to studio expectations, it received some of the highest film critic reviews. If you saw Lady Bird in 2017 or Eighth Grade from 2018, you may consider this to be similar fare. In fact, it is much more difficult to swallow. The other two were mild in comparison.

"Booksmart" by Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP (CatholicMom.com)

Beanie Feldstein stars as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release. Credit: Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Now, as a film critic, I don’t walk out of too many films, but I walked out on this one several times. I always try to find the redeeming value of a film, that being my theological perspective for reviewing a film. And most stories have something that touch upon the deep questioning and existential yearnings that we all have as human beings. Booksmart does reflect that being beautiful does not mean having the perfect body, hair, facial features, athletic ability, or personality. Though rather frumpy and nerdy, Molly and Amy continually tell each other that they are beautiful and gorgeous and build up each other’s self-image and confidence. And they have a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation at the end of the film after a very public fight at a party. Yet, the misguided focus on fulfilling sexual pleasure just because it feels good is such a spoon-fed line of the popular culture. It obviously misses the medically-backed facts of teen depression linked to sexual behavior. But, it also makes it the standard fare of teens to talk about masturbation, sexual fulfillment (gay and straight), constant vulgarity, and flippant disregard of any human dignity.

Now, many people would say that is just teens being teens. But, is it? Yes, I can remember my teen years and see some similarities. But this film shows it all in such extreme ways that the purposeful exaggeration can just have the opposite effect and turn people off. The question that burned in me while watching this film: Can teens live the strange, awkward, and painful adolescent years with a bit more personal dignity and joy? Can we help our children and young people see that there is so much more to their lives than what this film proposes?

I believe we can! By teaching them to be critical engagers of the culture and not passive users and abusers of the digital media, we can give them the tools to be discerning and happier people. When human values and Gospel values are taught and modeled to them they have the tools to be, “in the world but not of the world” of popular media culture. They stand grounded on who they are, confident that their personal dignity matters more than being popular. This is the hardest thing for teens to come to accept. Yet it is the most crucial lesson they must learn, because once they become adults and enter into the work force, they have to literally “bite the bullet” and stand up for what they believe or risk losing themselves altogether.

I often give parents a tool that helps them talk to their teens about the media they engage in. It is called Media Mindfulness. There is a Media Mindfulness wheel that leads us to ask questions of the media, bring our values into conversation with it, and reflect theologically on what we receive from the media messages and what we take away from the experience of engagement. It is a methodology based on the ancient form of praying the Scriptures, Lectio Divina, and theological reflection, as well as the principals of media literacy. Here is a picture of the wheel:

When we help our teens to ask questions and to engage critically we are already helping them to become discerning, responsible citizens. Helping them to stop and reflect and so think about what the media culture communicates and expresses and normalizes, then they can question whether this is what they believe or desire for their lives. It also leads to questioning the philosophies of the media that are present there, especially the lifestyle of hedonism (“If it feels good, do it”) and relativism (“You have your truth and I have mine”). Using this with the film Booksmart is a good way to evaluate that film according to values or the complete lack thereof.

So, here we go.

  1. What is going on? Two girls realize they missed out on living their high school years partying, so they do it all in one night.
  2. What’s really going on? The teens in the film live completely hedonistic lifestyles and the adults not only are portrayed as ridiculous but also are the worst examples of discerning, self-controlled, and dignified human beings. The film normalizes the extreme sexual perversions portrayed.
  3. What difference does it make? It degrades the human person as being like animals seeking to fulfill all impulses and desires without any sense of reason and reflection. Sexuality is disconnected from a true self-giving love in a committed, life-long relationship.
  4. What difference can I make? I can choose to live a life of dignity and integrity, not following the crowd for the sake of popularity, but living a happy life by finding joy in being the best of who God created me to be.

When we come across a film like Booksmart, we may think teens won’t watch it, but if they do so with their friends, we want to be able to help them be smart, critical, and discerning people whose faith translates into their entertainment experience. I hope they don’t see Booksmart because I think it is simply degrading, but if they do, I hope and pray they can see the utter unfulfillment resulting from such a selfish and vulgar lifestyle, which is portrayed as humorous and a “typical teen” way of seeing the world.

Our faith values can help them see that being kind, pure, and reflective human beings leads them to being happy and fulfilled and ultimately more peaceful, something the world cannot give, as Jesus told us so aptly. Only in Him will we find our peace. Only living our lives as He taught us will we find the happiness for which our hearts long.


Copyright 2019 Sr. Nancy Usselmann

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About Author

Sr. Nancy Usselmann, FSP is a Daughter of St Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles, CA. She is a Media Literacy Education Specialist, theologian, international speaker, film reviewer, and blogger for BeMediaMindful.org. Her book A Sacred Look: Becoming Cultural Mystics is a theology of popular culture published by Wipf & Stock Publishing.

2 Comments

  1. I loved your thinking here Sister Nancy. I have been thinking about the importance of having discussions with my girls about secular books, songs, movies, in order to support their reflection through the lens of the virtues. I appreciate the Media Mindfulness wheel you shared, as well as your thoughts towards the end that hopefully they will discern not to watch but if they do to provide scaffolds to recognize the emptiness of the portrayals.

    • Thank you, Amanda, for your comments. Indeed, teaching our young people to discern is the greatest gift we can give them so they can use those tools throughout their lives. God bless you!

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