It’s nearly impossible to discuss Olivia Wilde’s directorial feature debut Booksmart without slipping into hyperbole. Bursting with confidence and personality, it avoids nearly all of the pitfalls of a first film, as it cultivates a living, breathing ecosystem that manages to somehow pin down a myriad of universal truths in a way we rarely see on-screen while also being an absolute and unrelenting blast from start to finish. Buoyant and textured as it thoughtfully examines the complexities of teenage friendship, Booksmart is the movie you wish you had available to you in your high school years.
You wouldn’t call inseparable besties and textbook overachievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) party animals. In fact, rather than using their fake IDs to buy booze, the whip them out simply so they can use the 24-hour library at the local university. And all their sacrifices have paid off, with each at the top of the class and set to attend Ivy League schools after graduation. However, as their senior year draws to a close, they discovers that the preps and slackers and wastoids all have bright futures ahead of them as well, without having to compromise their party habits. So, Molly and Amy decide to have one wild night before high school ends to make up for lost time.
Nearly every teen movie chronicles a quest to fit in, but not this time around. Molly and Amy have taken pride in spending their lives setting themselves apart from the pack. Instead, they lean on one another through this period of awkward transformation. Aided by Feldstein and Dever’s instant, palpable connection. Booksmart not only ponders the idea that our high school besties will always be the most important people in our lives; it boast that innocent optimism as an idea to be cherished and nurtured. The elevator pitch label “Superbad for girls” is destructive for several reasons, not the least of which being that it misses how wholly original the film feels. Wilde isn’t reinventing the wheel, but she’s telling a recognizable tale of the bonds of female friendship from an angle we rarely see explored on film.
Many 21st century farces, such as Step Brothers, have eschewed the standard vaudevillian straight-man/funny-man comedy duo dynamic by having two goofballs see just how far they can push each other off the rails. Booksmart does the exact opposite, milking the anticipation of watching these livelong straight edgers finally affording themselves permission to cut loose. What’s more, when the jokes do start rolling in, they feel substantial, mainly because they are tethered to a tender emotional core. The film’s whip-smart, fast-paced script (penned with exquisite contributions from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman) isn’t simply dusting off old raunchy teen comedy gags. It’s providing a genuine slice of life that just so happens to be uproariously funny. Booksmart understands the hardships of adolescence, as well as the various coping mechanisms we develop to get through it all in one piece. In that, it becomes an environment free from judgement, as we realize that no one, regardless of social standing, has an easy time surviving high school. Rather than settling for cartoonishly villainous bullies and sex-crazed lunatics, the film opts for kindness, using the nightmare transition into adulthood as the great equalizer for us all.
Although Booksmart is centered around the unshakable bond between Amy and Molly, it is a true ensemble piece. Brilliantly assembled by virtuoso casting director Allison Jones, each performer is throwing their all into the film. It’s tempting to argue that one actor is a scene-stealer, but then another will come along and claim the attention for themselves. We are bombarded with dazzling, noteworthy characters who are constantly upstaging one another, like insufferable, overly eager tryhard Jared (Skyler Gisondo), catty, over-the-top literal drama queen George (Noah Galvin), and, of course, otherworldly, drugged out would-be fairy godmother Gigi (Billie Lourd). Watching Booksmart in a decade or two is sure to feel the way watching Freaks and Geeks or Wet Hot American Summer does today, because each of these performers is surely on the path to stardom.
Fueled by big laughs and steadfast emotional intensity, Booksmart genuinely feels lived in. Olivia Wilde has afforded teen girls (particularly the witty, academic types) a mouthpiece in a spectacular way. Here, they are able to temporarily turn their focus away from the pressures the world is placing on them and simply enjoy the moment at hand. An instantaneous addition to the coming-of-age teen movie pantheon, the Juul generation is sure to look back on this as their Sixteen Candles or their Rushmore. It will also, no doubt, inspire a fleet of cheap knockoffs, but if they maintain even a fraction of the magic here, young adult cinema will be all the better for it.