A few weeks ago on Inside The Film Room’s summer movie preview, I defended “Booksmart” as my most anticipated film. No superheroes, no monsters, just two high school girls trying to fit in. Now, after attending an early screening, I can confidently justify the lofty ranking.
After opening to glowing reviews at March’s South by Southwest festival, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut quickly popped up on several watchlists, mine included. With two months of build up following its initial showing, “Booksmart” hasn’t lost any steam heading into its wide release, sitting at a Certified Fresh 99 percent after 143 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
For four years, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have resisted the urge to party and instead studied endlessly to make sure they were accepted to the best colleges. But the day before graduation, the two learn that all the party-goers they belittled for so long were accepted to prestigious schools too. Suddenly, their entire high school careers look like one big missed opportunity. With only 24 hours left before graduation, Amy and Molly set out to squeeze four years of partying into a single night to prove they’re more than just their GPAs.
On the surface, “Booksmart” may look like just another high school party flick, but that’s not the case. Instead, it’s a wicked smart, incredibly-paced and flat out hilarious look at what high school, and teenagers, are really like in 2019. Just like how last year’s “Eighth Grade” revealed the brutally honest truth behind life as a millennial middle schooler, “Booksmart” tells it like it is — no disguises. While certain elements are clearly embellished, Wilde’s characters talk and act like real teenagers, not characters in a movie.
At the core of the film are two stellar performances by Dever and Feldstein. The duo’s chemistry extends far beyond their comedic banter, which is phenomenal, but into every facet of their relationship. There’s a genuine feeling of authenticity between the two, like they’re real-life best friends, too – which might stem from the fact they chose to live together during filming.
While it’s certainly a raunchy comedy, “Booksmart” still has a lot of important things to say – about authenticity, compassion and traditional high school stereotyping. The film’s best scene comes not when Amy and Molly are cracking jokes or dancing, but instead when they come clean in what looks like a friendship-ending argument in front of their entire grade. Dever and Feldstein prove that just like their characters, they too are multidimensional, and the showdown allows for some excellent shots from cinematographer Jason McCormick.
The film is filled with hysterical cameos from quite a few big-time players, like Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, along with a truly incredible ensemble of up-and-comers. However, Billie Lourd’s Gigi, a drugged-up, cryptic party animal who constantly appears out of thin air, steals every scene. She may be used almost exclusively for laughs, but Lourd nails it each time and plays her role perfectly.
It’s clear “Booksmart” draws inspiration from several of the coming-of-age stories that have preceded it – particularly “Superbad” – but it elevates every element. It’s ultimately still the story of high schoolers determined to party hard while being forced to overcome a variety of obstacles along the way, but while most comedies would leave it at that, “Booksmart” doesn’t. Unlike “Superbad,” it has something greater to say.
Woven into the hilarity is Wilde’s message of compassion and self-acceptance. While so many high school movies narrowly confine their characters to stereotypes, “Booksmart” works to break them down. At the film’s start, Amy and Molly’s outlook on their classmates informs viewers with all of the traditional roles – the jocks, the nerds and popular girls. But as the film goes on, the girls, and the audience, learn to see everyone as more than just their outwardly defining characteristics, but as the multifaceted students they are. It’s easy to perpetuate stereotypes in movies like this, using them to heighten drama and make antagonists easily identifiable, but there isn’t really a villain here.
Again, “Booksmart” breaks traditional high school rules by refusing to make its characters the butt of its jokes. In “Superbad” hardly a second goes by without a hysterical, yet demeaning, comment aimed at Fogell aka McLovin. This time around, “Booksmart” matches, and honestly surpasses the humor, without needing to unnecessarily bully anyone to an extreme.
With just a single film under her name, it’s clear Wilde is a force behind the lens, and it’s exciting to think about what’s next for her, along with her uber-talented cast. “Booksmart” proves that no matter how many times the high school coming-of-age story is replicated, there’s always a way to make it even better, and in this case, even more outrageous.
Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Rewatch: 5 out of 5
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.