Directed by Olivia Wilde
Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Eduardo Franco, Jason Sudeikis
On the eve of their graduation, academic achievers and best friends, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), have an epiphany that they’ve sacrificed too much of a traditional high school experience in favour of good grades and sleepovers, so decide to make up for it all in the space of one crazy night.
Booksmart had a lot to do in order to graduate from a crowded pack of genre pics. The single-night coming-of-age flick can be found in an oversubscribed classroom full of enfant terribles such as Project X, or those achieving full honours, like Dazed & Confused or Superbad. The best of these are fraction of life reflections of their time, tastes, and trends, all built on a foundation of laughs and heart, of which Booksmart is this year’s unrivaled big-screen Valedictorian.
From the outside it appears to be your usual ramshackle college collective, the kind of groups sent up so brilliantly in Mean Girls, but the genius of Olivia Wilde’s film can be found in the way that it flips your preconceptions about the kind of kids you’re watching. Sure there are heightened characters, but Katie Silberman’s script slowly peels away the labels that are so unfairly attributed to the younger generation. There’s so much more to the tattooed skateboarder, the soccer player drawing a penis on the toilet wall, and even the jock who’s unable to catch a crisp in his mouth. You’ll go through this night with these personalities, and want to do it over-and-over-again. Booksmart already feels like a VHS classic for the ages.
Integral to enjoying the admittedly familiar concept are the hilarious central performances from Dever and Feldstein, so it’s an added bonus that their characters are also incredibly well-written. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen Dever in her recurring role on Justified will know that she’s an actress of immense talent. Amy is smart, funny, owns her identity, and is into girls without that ever being an issue. Booksmart is a mainstream comedy viewed through the eyes of a gay teenager, yet the main issue she’s dealing with are about how nervous she is talking to her crush. Trying to normalise queer sexuality is such a refreshing take on a genre so often dominated by the juvenile antics of young men. As great as Superbad was, by comparison Booksmart is ‘Supergood’.
Feldstein’s Molly is as much of a potential role model as her co-star. Introduced listening to a female empowerment podcast, surrounded by pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she might have been the kind of character who’d be ridiculed in previous iterations of this movie, but here she’s a strong support system for her friend, fiercely independent, and often hilariously outspoken.
They make a charming double act, with the strength of their friendship paying off in droves by the time ‘Unchained Melody’ (part of a stellar soundtrack) plays out over the films final beats. It’s testament to their chemistry that you’ll cry as much at the occasional emotional wallops, as you will their pre-school impromptu body-popping, or improvised adoration of each other’s dress-sense. They really do feel like the kind of friends who’ll be talking about the events of this film in fifty years time.
Their classmates are equally impressive: Billie Lourd is on scene-stealing form as a one-percenter, who inexplicably pops up at various points throughout the night, while Molly Gordon has one of the most rewarding arcs as a girl seemingly marked with The Scarlett Letter.
With the film rattling on at a fair pace, not all of the jokes land. For every failed pizza delivery guy hold-up, there’s a protracted scene of base level humour that doesn’t sit well with the smarts of the rest of the script. But that’s just being picky when you have such inspired sequences as the Anomalisa-style hallucination. You’ll understand when you see it.
In fact, the entire film is so brilliantly put together, that it’s hard to imagine this is Olivia Wilde’s first feature film. There is an extended swimming pool sequence that’ll be amongst the best of the year, as the debut director displays the same kind of effective soundtrack implementation as another of this years coming-of-age classics, Mid90s.
Destined to be played ad-infinitum for generations to come, Booksmart joins the likes of The Kings of Summer and Eighth Grade, as a contemporary snapshot of youth with a heart as big as its funny bone. Enrol now.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt