Review by David Baldwin
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are about to finish high school. They are at the top of their class in academics, and both have extensive plans for the fall and beyond. But on the eve of graduation, they realize how much of the high school experience they missed out on by spending all of their time studying. So they set out to party and change the impressions their classmates have of them – that is, if they can find the right address for the biggest party of the year.
I saw Booksmart just over two weeks ago and I am still laughing just thinking about some of the jokes and wild moments packed into it. I was afraid going in that the buzz out of the SXSW Film Festival would overhype and overtake the movie for me. But rather delightfully, Booksmart met and surpassed every single one of my expectations. It truly is the real deal. And while it is easy to read the plot description and believe it is like any number of other teenage coming-of-age comedies (or specifically assume it is a gender swapped Superbad clone), it is actually something much greater than that.
Where other films of its ilk deliberately feel nostalgic and of a different time, Booksmart feels contemporary and very much a film that could only exist in 2019. For one thing, the two lead characters are female. But more importantly, they both represent reframed archetypes (one an overweight overachiever, the other a recently out lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality) that similar films would have relegated to quirky supporting characters. But Booksmart never goes out of its way to address this as being anything but completely normal, nor does it feel revolutionary to see the film place emphasis on both straight and LGBTQ teenagers living their best lives and dealing with the same stresses we all did when we were in high school. Just writing that sentence out feels refreshing and completely atypical for a movie like this.
Even better, Booksmart never adds any real bullies into the mix or saddles any of the characters with horrific, slur filled dialogue. Yes, some of the dialogue quickly become obscene and outrageously hilarious, but the things these characters say all feel equally as rude as each other. Where other films would have been significantly less delicate, the tender intimacy of how Booksmart handles Amy’s sexual awakening (and the awkward humour that results from it) is rather beautiful and poignant. And while there is one scene that was a bit too weird for me – and nearly derails the film’s momentum – I understand why it was added and what it means to have such an offbeat sequence become part of Amy and Molly’s wild night. I could keep going on, but I would be doing the film a disservice by spoiling all the fun. Kudos to the incredible writing team of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman for a truly wonderful screenplay that will not be easy to forget.
What also works in Booksmart’s favour is the impeccable direction by first-time director Olivia Wilde. Yes, that Olivia Wilde from The O.C. and TRON: Legacy. She takes everything she has learned from her years of acting and has created a film that looks fresh and feels authentic. Every setting feels lived in, and even the most outlandish moments look spectacular and real. The way she has the camera capture the action and dialogue adds a layer of depth to everything happening on-screen, and the way she uses music to capture individual personalities is a unique touch that will no doubt be replicated for years to come. Where other directors would have cut corners and made everything feel similar (or worse, made it all look like every other teen comedy), Wilde strives for difference and idiosyncrasy. From the very start right up until the very end, Booksmart maintains an aura that never really dissipates. I look forward with great enthusiasm to whatever project Wilde sets her eyes on next.
If you have read this far, then you can probably guess that the acting in Booksmart is also top notch. The supporting cast is aces no matter how significant their role – each getting their own chance to shine and make an impression with standout performances from Billie Lourd, Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin and Molly Gordon (who does a great job turning choice stereotypes on their head in a completely unexpected and disarming way). And while the high schoolers are the focal point of the film, small turns from the likes of Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte and Wilde’s husband Jason Sudeikis are all a lot of fun.
But everyone pails in comparison to Dever and Feldstein. The two young actresses are fantastic in their roles, commanding the screen at every turn. They are alternatively hilarious and devastating, sometimes in the same scene. They are fine tuned and dialed into the nuances and eccentricities of Amy and Molly, and breathe life into these very real characters that goes above and beyond whatever was on the page. Their comradery and love for each other is infectious and moving. You genuinely feel every single up and down these two young women go through on their quest to make memories that will last a lifetime. And the way they portray their individual challenges separately is magnificent all in itself. They are absolutely perfect in these roles and getting to see characters like these portrayed on-screen will no doubt inspire generations to come.
It has taken me longer to write this review out than I would care to admit. So I will not mince words and just get straight to the point – Booksmart is fucking awesome. There really is no easier way to put it. It is hilarious, heartfelt, authentic and above all else, genuinely moving. If Dever and Feldstein were not on your radar before, you better believe they will be now. And Wilde, in her directorial debut, has created an instant classic that demands to be experienced whether you are living through your high school years now or are decades removed from it. Hollywood simply does not make movies like this as often as it should – so skip out on whatever huge blockbuster you are watching this weekend for the second or sixth time, and go see Booksmart. Because you are going to be quoting and thinking about this one for a long time afterwards.