Directed by Olivia Wilde.
Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Billie Lourd, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis.
On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realise they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night.
Olivia Wilde instantly earmarks herself as an unexpected filmmaking talent to watch with this distinctive – yet just familiar enough – entry into the crowded coming-of-age genre. Girded by two killer central performances and uncommonly strong technicals, Booksmart has untapped potential to become a cultural milestone within its target demo and beyond.
Hundreds of reviewers will inevitably be comparing this movie to Greg Mottola’s iconic Superbad, and while that might initially sound like a glib if not downright cynical touchstone, it is one this film certainly earns.
With a similar focus on a co-dependent focal friendship between two high-schoolers on the cusp of adulthood, not to forget shenanigans involving creepy middle-aged men, mid-coitus vomit and the wrong side of the law, it’s tough not to see the film as a spiritual successor of sorts. And if all that’s not enough, co-lead Beanie Feldstein also happens to be Jonah Hill’s younger sister.
Our protagonists are Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Feldstein), two ferociously committed students who, on the eve of their graduation, realise they haven’t created any booze-fuelled, sex-crazed extra-curricular memories. And so, a night jam-packed with parties, curious run-ins with fellow students and dawning realisations about their own self-worth begins.
If Wilde’s film seems to invoke Superbad with few apologies, the differences are still also abundant – Booksmart revolves around two female leads, and 2019 is a very different place to 2007, which is all encapsulated quite succinctly in a script from the team of Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. Most pressingly, the film wears its wokeness on its sleeve, transpiring in an almost jarringly utopian high school setting, where gender-neutral bathrooms are everywhere and homophobia appears to be nowhere.
This most markedly speaks to a society comparatively enlightened to the high schools of 2007, and (thankfully) so far away from Superbad‘s liberal use of the word “fag.” Viewed through the lens of someone who finished their high-schooling in the mid-2000s, Wilde’s film at times invoked the Jump Street movies, which so brilliantly encapsulated – in a heightened fashion – how notions of bullying have changed over the decades.
Here, the bullies aren’t the dumb jocks – they’re plenty smart on their own accord, and they might even end up in Yale among you. It’s a refreshingly subversive approach for a genre that usually lives and dies on reinforcing stereotypes. Moreover, it’s a film unafraid to hold its protagonists to account for their own judgemental trappings; Molly (Feldstein) in particular is routinely called out for the assumptions she makes about her classmates.
In fact, the film is so equal-opportunities in dishing out the criticism it threatens to veer into excessively sentimental territory; there are few true assholes in sight by film’s end, which even in our sunnier 2019 might feel a tad optimistic. But there are much worse crimes for a movie to commit than striving for a greater collective understanding between our youth, especially one which so ably promotes self-actualisation and self-esteem for young women most of all.
This message wouldn’t land quite so convincingly, however, were it not for the strong performances at the core. Kaitlyn Dever is extremely authentic as the bookish, retiring Amy, who sets out on a quest to embrace her sexuality and find a greater sense of self-confidence, while Feldstein’s more boisterous – and occasionally obnoxious – Molly touts a no-bullshit front which conceals plenty of her own vulnerability.
The entire ensemble sings, though, and helps bring gravity to a young lot that could otherwise seem cartoonishly extroverted at times. Especially impressive among the students are Billie Lourd as the hard-partying Gigi and Skyler Gisondo as the privileged yet crushingly insecure Jared. On the adult front we have Wilde’s hubby Jason Sudeikis, who kills it as the howlingly un-cool school principal, while Jessica Williams is great fun as lonesome teacher Mrs. Fine, and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte are electric in a few small scenes as Amy’s toe-curlingly affable parents.
There are certainly a few moments throughout where it feels like a comedic beat lingers too long, but for the most part Wilde’s film is a heart-warming and devilishly funny tale of friendship and growing-up – and also an eye-opening look at what it means to be a youngster in 2019. That it’s also one of the most lovingly-lensed comedies in recent memory – props to DP Jason McCormick – is really just the icing on the cake. Hell, it even boasts a stop-motion animated sequence – though the less said about that, the less spoiled.
A smart, authentic and impressively acted entry into a genre that so rarely does justice to young women, Booksmart marks a striking debut for director Olivia Wilde.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.