Booksmart is a brand new coming-of-age high school comedy and is the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde. It stars Kaitlyn Dever (The Spectacular Now, Beautiful Boy) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) as Amy and Molly, two best friends who have worked their entire high school careers to get into prestigious colleges by focusing almost exclusively on homework and extra-curricular activities that would bolster their resumes. But when Molly discovers on the eve of their high school graduation that the other high school kids who are notorious for partying and living it up also got into those prestigious colleges, she decides that she and her best friend should have worked less and played a little more. Resolving to go to a party that night, Molly and Amy set out to prove that they, too, can have a little fun, and so ensues a tidal wave of comedy and shenanigans on the journey to their destination. Booksmart is a one-night-fits-all tale of female friendship, love, laughs, and learning a few things along the way.
From the moment the first red band trailer for Booksmart was released, I began to be excited about it. This movie didn’t just look fun, it looked wild and genuinely hilarious. It was a really great trailer, and directorial debuts have been running in the “best movies of the year” categories in my top 10 lists for about the past 5 to 6 years. Given that Olivia Wilde is a world class actress, I was anxious to see what her transition to being behind the camera would bring. As well, I remembered Beanie Feldstein being one of the most unexpectedly charming parts of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird back in 2017, so I knew if an actress that talented had signed on to this, it had to be something special. Truth be told, I had no idea who Kaitlyn Dever was (even though I had seen some things she was in before), but from the trailer alone, she seemed to making a turn for super-stardom in her brazenly confident performance. When people talk about why marketing is the second most important job in movie-making (the first is making a good movie), this is why they talk about it. But, ultimately, if the film itself didn’t live up to the trailer that teased it, it would all be for naught. Luckily, that was not the case here.
Booksmart carries the same attitude its main characters do throughout the film’s runtime: brazenly confident with a layer of piercing vulnerability underneath. On a continuous loop, Olivia Wilde uses every opportunity for things to get more crazy to make them more crazy, without sacrificing a pin-sharp focus on our two protagonists and their ride-or-die love for each other. The relationship between Amy and Molly is one of the more moving relationships displayed between high school girls on the silver screen, a relationship that (tragically) audiences often don’t get to see displayed as pure friendship without any added complications apart from those developed by any other normal friendship. It may seem like a moot point to say this, but these characters actually do feel like real people in a real high school that actually act like high schoolers. That’s something we still don’t get to see much of, despite the successes of other high school comedies like Edge of Seventeen or Lady Bird. In fact, if I had to describe this movie’s style and comedic sensibilities in only one way, I would say that it’s a new-flavored blend of Lady Bird and Superbad. It doesn’t all go over perfectly (and we’ll get to why in just a second), but I was having so much fun watching these characters just hang out all night that the flaws the film does have didn’t bother me very much, and didn’t register nearly as well as its strengths did. It’s a bit hard to get into why since this is a spoiler-free review and the trailers actually did hide most of the more surprising moments in the film, but suffice it to say, it’s worth seeing it for yourself.
This film is not all just comedy and shenanigans, however. There is a real sense of vulnerability and heart at the core of Molly and Amy’s relationship to each other and to the other people in their school. This movie wisely explores the notion that maybe the “party crowd” isn’t so bad after all, that maybe they’re just looking to have some fun too before leaving high school, even if they don’t show off their academic knowledge for honors or prestige awards. In fact, one girl in the school who’s known as “Triple A” (played by Molly Gordon) is slut-shamed by a number of people in the school for enjoying sex, and it’s revealed pretty early on in the film that she will be attending Columbia in the fall because she got a 1560 on the SATs. Booksmart, better than perhaps any film before it, explores the negative aspects of believing in stereotypes about the people you think believe in stereotypes. It pulls the layer of pride involved with thinking that being academic and not caring about partying or hanging with the popular kids makes one better than everyone else, and to Olivia Wilde’s credit, as well as the credit of the writers, the “party kids” in this movie are actually some of the more endearing and genuine people in the script.
The performances across the board are fantastic, particularly those of the main cast members, including Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, and Skyler Gisondo in roles that provide some of the funniest moments in the entire film. Of course, Beanie Feldstein turns in yet another ultra-naturalistic turn as Molly. I knew she would be great due to what I saw from her in Lady Bird, but this role feels so much more her own than even that one did. Her relationship to Amy feels incredibly natural and the two have remarkable chemistry as a pair. What I did not expect was for Kaitlyn Dever to practically steal the show in almost every scene she’s in (apart from a few but we’ll get to that later). Dever may have been around for a bit doing some smaller roles in indie films here and there, but Booksmart takes her acting chops and shoots them through the stratosphere. If this movie does nothing else for her, it just made her a household name, and every studio should be so lucky to have her act in their scripts. What comes as the most surprising show-stealer though is Billie Lourd as Gigi, an uber-rich high school drama queen who’s only a drama queen in the sense that everything she does is dramatic (she doesn’t actually start any drama). Lourd is the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, so naturally, she has a pretty large legacy to live up to, but not only does she pull it off in this movie, I actually found myself laughing the most when she was on screen. Lourd makes this character something entirely her own here, and she’s sure to be the largest performance stand-out apart from our leading duo.
All that to say, Booksmart is not a perfect film. One of the things it doesn’t do so well is that when it’s time for the laughs to really get going, you’ll laugh, but you’ll also find yourself wondering if there’s a whole lot more to this thing than some of it having been largely unseen in mainstream cinema before and the novelty of one or two expectation-subverting characters. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have anything more to offer, but it’s a little bit hard to tell when one of the best scenes in the entire movie involves the two main characters arguing over their friendship and we don’t really get to see anything as compelling as that for most of the movie before or after. As well (and I know it’s basically sacrilege to say this), the movie felt like they could have added on about another 15-20 minutes to really explore where Amy and Molly were at psychologically with going off to college. What’s there is great, but I was craving just a bit more heart for the coming-of-age parts of the film. Still, it’s no deal-breaker, and I had a lot of fun watching it anyway.
Booksmart is easily one of the best films of the year so far, and far and away the best comedy. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is not just a success, it’s a triumph, and the power that resides therein is the central relationship between the two main actors who are giving superstar turns in naturalistic performances that show off the heart and vulnerability of high school girls with major FOMO without sacrificing or even dialing back the comedic elements of their characters. It’s Superbad meets Lady Bird with some truly compelling mixes thrown in, and I, for one can’t wait for you all to see it. Booksmart releases nationwide on May 24th.
I’m giving “Booksmart” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.