Watching Booksmart, the new teen comedy from Annapurna Pictures, you would not know that this is the directorial debut feature film for Olivia Wilde (Life Itself/House, M.D.). Nuts to bolts, Booksmart is a heat-seeking rocket of a film. It’s precise, on target, and explosive, and is no doubt destined to become a classic in the eyes of the teens and post-teens who see it because it speaks to them and for them about the way the current younger generation see themselves and the world. Anchored by gut-bustingly hilarious performances from Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird), Booksmart blends the real with the hyper-real in its telling of an insane two-days in the lives of two soon-to-be high school graduates and, in doing so, creates something magical.
Best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) need to make it through one more day of high school before graduation and then their lives can start. After spending years focused on their school work while their classmates partied, the fruits of the labors are finally coming to bare: 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 classmates got into some of the best colleges in the country while also maintaining a social life, Molly decides that she and Amy need to get their rage on with their classmates. However, since no one will tell them where THE part 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 prepare 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) crafted. Booksmart isn’t a film of good girls behaving badly, but of two friends realizing that in their focus for academic success, they pigeon-holed their classmates and themselves. For all the ridiculousness that Amy and Molly get into as they traverse L.A., the idea that everyone is more than others perceive them is at the heart of the narrative. Take the opening dialogue, wherein audiences first see Molly listening to a motivational tape (voiced by Maya Rudolph) which tells her that she’s a winner and the rest are losers. While this isn’t the only journey, both literal and philosophical, the girls take part in, this is the overarching message: you are more than people think you to be. Because of this message, Booksmart is going to join 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 when they were released (or representative of the era of the film’s timeline), yet they possess something timeless. So even though the characters discuss consent, utilize non-gender specific language, are entirely sex and body positive, don’t presume heteronomativity as the norm, 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. No, that 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. However, their work in Booksmart possesses the ability to demonstrate that they can headline all on their own. 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. Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet), Diana Silvers (Ma), Molly Gordon (Life of the Party), Noah Galvin (Assassination Nation), Austin Crute (Atlanta), Eduardo Franco (American Vandal), and Mason Gooding (Ballers) 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, though, 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 is breathtakingly beautiful in how it captures ethereal nature of youth and desire. 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 highlights the characters’ reactions in the moment in an organic way, enabling the audience to feel the ferocity in each word uttered even more.
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, like Booksmart, we become magical.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.