Every few years, a teen comedy comes around that makes an impression on its core audience. Going as far back as 1978’s “Animal House”, to “The Breakfast Club”, “Clueless” to “Mean Girls”; and more recently, “Superbad” and “Lady Bird”. We can now safely add Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” to that list.
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are two overachieving high school seniors ready to go out and conquer the world. Amy has been out for over two years, but has yet to make a move with the cool, hipster skater girl in class she’s been crushing on and plans to travel to Botswana to build houses for those in need. Molly is too concerned with her academic career to be bothered with any other friends at school, but she might have a crush on the dopey cool guy the serves as Vice Class President.
Both ladies are fiercely feminist — they worship empowering female leaders like “RBG” and Michelle Obama — they are confident in each other and they have dreams of achieving greatness. They would rather have a sleepover and watch a Ken Burns documentary than go out and party.
After the realization that they’ve spent their entire high school careers locked away studying, preparing for the world ahead of them and haven’t had an ounce of “high school fun”, the girls decide to cram all four years of high school into a night of Odyssey-like adventure of partying at their classmates big party. Things become difficult however, when they don’t know the address of the party and they have graduation in the morning.
“Booksmart” often feels like a Coen brothers film in terms of its originality. The film is grounded in reality, but still goes off into some wacky and surreal situations. A sequence mid-way through the film involving an accidental indulgence in hallucinogens turns everything into stop-motion animation; and it works. This is a comedy that’s also very of-its-time. Every line of dialogue feels authentic, even when Wilde and the writers are going for the joke.
The film beautifully shows the ups-and-downs of a teenage friendship. Neither of the girls are perfect; they tend to be selfish, contradictory, and even a little manipulative. However, that’s part of what makes “Booksmart” feel so authentic. It’s not afraid to be honest about its characters, even the ones you think you hate.
Amy and Molly are a duo that are completely relatable and Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever have a sincere, infectious chemistry with one another. Both actresses are so gifted in selling the comedy; whether it be physical or fast one-liners, but also sell the dramatic aspects of the relationship. These characters are so lovable and you’re rooting for them the whole way, that whenever they have an argument or get in over their heads, you just want to see them succeed.
Billie Lourd is uproariously funny as the school nutcase, Gigi. Lourd commands every frame she’s in and does so with exuberant flair. To give away some of the crazy situations she gets involved in would ruin some of the funniest bits in the movie, but Lourd made me have to catch my breath from laughing numerous times throughout the film.
Every side character in this film is wonderfully performed. Despite only having a handful of scenes, the characters all have their respective moments to shine. Giant kudos to the casting director, Allison Jones, for bringing in so many fresh faces that leave such lasting impressions.
Olivia Wilde amazes in her directorial debut. Its as fierce and confident as a directorial debut can possibly be. Despite taking notable influences, Wilde forges an original style of her own that feels vibrant and alive. A lot of comedies don’t take chances with style and many come off as flat and simply rely on gags to coast their way through. Wilde take great strides in making the style of “Booksmart” feel energetic and witty. The past several years have seen some spectacular directorial debuts, but this ranks amongst the best of the bunch.
Wilde doesn’t just take inspiration from classic teen comedies, but buddy comedies along the lines of “The Blues Brothers” and “Lethal Weapon”. The high school in this case could easily double as a Police Station and the dynamic of the film wouldn’t change.
Wilde and writers Emily Halpern, Susanna Fogel, Sarah Haskins & Katie Silberman understand the complexity of being a teenager and awaiting the next chapter in your life. The fragile emotions and the fear of growing apart are rampant in the lives of Amy and Molly, and we totally understand them. The film ends on a emotional, but uplifting note that left a big lump in my throat.
The use of music is an important element to the film. Similar to an Edgar Wright film, the music choices are integral to what’s happening on-screen and not just arbitrary needle drops. The film also moves at brisk pace and doesn’t ever slack, thanks in part to the editing by Jamie Gross.
“Booksmart” doesn’t necessarily transcend the teen comedy genre, but rather injects a new and original flavor to it. Olivia Wilde makes a stunning debut as a director, the cast is universally wonderful and the script is full of fresh ideas and great characters. Simply put, this movie is the real deal.