May 23, 2019
Watching the new teen comedy Booksmart, you would not know this is the feature film directorial debut for Olivia Wilde (Life Itself, House). Nuts to bolts, Booksmart is a heat-seeking rocket of a film. It’s precise, on target and explosive, and, if this plays as strongly as it seems to be, could become a classic in the eyes of the teens and post-teens who see it. Why? Because it speaks to them about the way their generation sees themselves and the world. Anchored by gut-bustingly hilarious performances from Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird), Booksmart tells of an insane two days in the lives of soon-to-be high school graduates. By blending the real with the hyper-real, the movie creates something magical.
Best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) need to make it through one more day of high school before graduation, the moment they feel will be the start of their lives. After spending years focused on their school work while their classmates partied, the fruits of their labors are finally coming to bear: Amy plans to head to Botswana for the summer to do charity work, while valedictorian Molly spends her time gearing up to start Yale. After finding out that their less-than-academically-inclined peers got into some of the best colleges in the country while also maintaining social lives, Molly decides that she and Amy need to get their rage on with their classmates. However, since no one will tell them where the big party of the night is being held, the two girls embark on an adventure across Los Angeles which will reshape their futures in ways their studies haven’t prepared them for.
First off, ignore any comments that Booksmart is a female Superbad. Statements like those seek to create comparison so audiences know what they’re in for, but what it really does is minimalize what writers Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern (Good Girls), Sarah Haskins (Good Girls), and Katie Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic) have crafted. Booksmart isn’t a film of good girls behaving badly, but of two friends realizing in their focus for academic success, they pigeonholed their classmates and themselves.
Because of the film’s timeless message, Booksmart evokes the pantheon of teen/college comedies that come to define generations: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused, 10 Things I Hate About You, and, yes, even Superbad. Like Booksmart, each of these films are time capsules of the mentalities of the times in which they were released, yet they possess something timeless. Even as the characters discuss consent, utilize non-gender specific language, are entirely sex and body positive, don’t presume heteronormativity, and hit all the notes expected of the class of 2019, everything about Booksmart feels universal. Who among us wasn’t viewed as a geek, a jock, a delinquent, a slut, or something else until someone took the time to get to know us?
The magic of Booksmart isn’t contained to the script; it spills out all over the cast. Taking center stage is Dever and Feldstein, both of whom made significant impressions through their relative works in television and film. Their performances are fierce, bold, and fearlessly honest. It doesn’t matter if they are dancing on the street to music only they can hear or are trying to get information from a pizza delivery guy using their own hair as masks. Through sheer performance, nothing ever feels exaggerated or heightened about their relationship and what they’re willing to do for each other.
Where things do get a little hyper-real and, of course, it will because it’s a coming-of-age comedy, is in the supporting cast. Coming to Booksmart with credits that include major studio releases, Netflix programming, and more, cast members Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, and Mason Gooding quickly and easily make an impression as the group of students Amy and Molly spent years knowing, but never getting to know. They each do a magnificent job of falling into their respective stereotypes, pulling audiences toward believing the stereotypes until, one by one, they reveal something deeper. Of the supporting cast, Billie Lourd (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) steals every scene she’s in as the manic Gigi, Jarrod’s loyal companion and mysterious semi-guide for the girls’ wild adventure. As soon as Gigi shows, the audience and the girls know things are about to get weird, but there’s something about Lourd’s performance that maintains innocence and wards off maliciousness.
Bringing it all together is the sublime direction from Wilde. She uses frequent extended one-track shots to capture everything fluidly, making some takes evoke the reality of everyday life in their precision. An underwater sequence captures the ethereal nature of youth and desire with breathtaking beauty. A scene of incredible emotion and conflict is mesmerizing in its elegance as Wilde simply tilts the camera from one character to another instead of cutting between perspectives. In execution, it’s a subtle detail, but one which organically highlights the characters’ reactions in the moment, enabling the audience to feel the ferocity in each word.
Beautifully executed from top to bottom, Booksmart is more than a riotous teen comedy as it explores the complex ideas of friendship, falling in love, and growing up through various forms of self-realization and actualization. Between the deft direction, wonderfully paced script, and superb performances, audiences are going to have a blast tracking Amy and Molly’s last day of high school. But Booksmart is more than that. It’s also a powerful reminder that what we perceive is not often what is real and that if we all take a moment to consider our own biases, we will see others for who they are and, perhaps, be seen ourselves. When that happens, we become magical.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5.