Review: 'Booksmart'

Thursday, May 23, 2019
A still from 'Booksmart'.

Fashionably Late

2019 / USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Olivia Wilde / Opens in select cities on May 24, 2019

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Booksmart opens on the last day of high school for the Class of 2019 in an unspecified Los Angeles suburb – and BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) couldn’t be more ecstatic. It’s not that the past four years have been miserable for this inseparable duo. Far from it: Both girls are the sort of always-on over-achievers who put a premium on “winning” high school through academic excellence, student government, and progressive activism. Molly is the more relentless of the pair, a Type A go-getter in the mold of Tracy Flick and Leslie Knope. She’s class president, valedictorian, a champion debater, and eager to begin her matriculation “up in New Haven,” as she coyly puts it. (“You can just say ‘Yale,’” mutters their principal, played by Jason Sudeikis in clueless-dad mode.) Amy is quieter and less self-assured, but just as focused as her bestie on grades, trophies, and do-gooderism. She’s slated to spend her summer in Botswana, helping women in remote rural areas manufacture their own tampons, before heading to Columbia in the fall.

Joined at the hip since childhood, the girls are a little melancholy about going their separate ways. However, they’re also confident that all their hard work over the past four years – the straight As, perfect SAT scores, and glowing recommendation letters – has been worth it. Similarly, they have no regrets about the deprivation they’ve endured to snag slots in the Ivy League: no dating, no partying, and no fun unless it beefed up their college applications. As the last day of school winds to a close, however, Molly is shocked and appalled to discover that seemingly all their classmates have received choice acceptance letters and job offers. Affable jock Tanner (Nico Hiraga)? He’s heading Stanford on a soccer scholarship. Stoner goofball Theo (Eduardo Franco), who was thrice held back a grade? He’s moving directly into a six-figure software-engineer position with Google. School slut Triple A (Molly Gordon), so nicknamed for allegedly providing, um, “roadside assistance” to several guys? Horror of horrors: She’s been accepted to Yale, too.

These revelations shake the otherwise unflappable Molly to her core, and so she pitches a proposal to Amy. On this, the night before their commencement ceremony, they will cram in four years of neglected adolescent living, making up for lost time with a marathon of sex, drugs, and unsupervised misbehavior. Amy is reluctant, but Molly declares a “Malala,” a metaphorical ace card that is passed back and forth between the pair, and which effectively means, “You have to go along with what I’m suggesting, no questions asked.” For Molly, this one night of reckless hedonism is a matter of huffy principle, an over-reaction to the disheartening realization that she may have wasted the past four years of her life. Amy requires something a bit more tangible. Fortunately, Molly decrees that their destination will be the epic house party being thrown her useless vice president, dimwitted hunk Nick (Mason Gooding) – and it just so happens that Amy’s tattooed skater-girl crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) will reportedly be in attendance. Although she came out as a lesbian in her sophomore year, Amy has never so much as kissed another girl, and the prospect of some alone time with Ryan (and her cute overbite) makes her go weak in the knees.

Molly and Amy’s pact is an admittedly clever impetus for a raunchy, episodic teen comedy in the One Crazy Night sub-genre. The formula has been executed oodles of times before, of course, and it’s flexible enough to accommodate different tones: overt nostalgia trips like American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993), for example, or faintly fantastical nocturnal odysseys like Adventures in Babysitting (1987) and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). The most obvious point of reference for Booksmart, however, is undoubtedly Greg Mottola’s Superbad (2007), and not merely because one of that film’s breakout stars, Jonah Hill, happens to be Feldstein’s real-life brother. Both features place a devoted adolescent friendship front and center, and both grapple with the nascent separation anxiety that is bubbling beneath the surface of that relationship. Where Hill and Michael Cera’s marshmallowy losers were focused with horndog intensity on hooking up with their respective crushes, however, Booksmart is more humane and nuanced – even when it’s tripping balls or covered in vomit.

The journey that Molly and Amy are on is tangled up with a crisis of identity, a need to somehow prove to themselves that their willful embrace of a hyper-woke nerd-girl stereotype doesn’t also mean that they have to be fun-shunning killjoys. Both of them consider themselves outspoken feminists, after all – Amy’s Volvo boasts a “Warren 2020” bumper sticker, while a framed portrait of Justice Ginsburg hangs in Molly’s bedroom. And what’s more feminist than a teenage girl doing whatever she damn well pleases? As is their wont, the pair turn mildly rebellious adolescent fun into a manic science project, one where the blue ribbon of a Night to Remember can be clinched through sheer teen-girl magic. Indeed, Molly and Amy’s fervent positivity certainly seems indomitable. They’re the sort of friends who support each other by swapping foul-mouthed affirmations at the top of their lungs: “You’re fucking beautiful!!” “No, you’re fucking beautiful!!” Unsurprisingly, however, not every obstacle they encounter on their journey proves vulnerable to such intensity. Just as unsurprisingly, the unspoken resentments that are weighing on the girls’ friendship will be forced to the surface before the night is finished.

Hilarious, vulgar, and sweet in equal measure, Booksmart is the auspicious directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, from a screenplay penned by a quartet of writers: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman. That female pedigree is essential to Booksmart’s giddy success, most pointedly in its affectionate, enthusiastic portrayal of Molly and Amy’s gooey platonic-life-partner bond. Feldstein and Dever are just as vital in this respect, their comic energy – the former utterly irrepressible, the latter charmingly awkward – creating a complementary feedback loop that is somehow grounded and zany all at once. It’s appealing as hell, enabling a dose of the distinctly feminine school-daze pathos that characterized Lady Bird (2007) (which also featured Feldstein) without that film’s troublesome parent-child angst or Catholic guilt.

That said, Booksmart’s charm and novelty go beyond the sparkly specificity of its central female friendship. Like last year’s woefully under-appreciated prom-night romp Blockers, Wilde’s film flips the conventions of the crude teen comedy. Molly and Amy aren’t put-upon nerds out for revenge against their popular-kid oppressors. If anything, they’re alpha-female strivers, their eyes so fixated on their bright, shining futures that they can barely be bothered to acknowledge the mere mortals milling around them. Molly’s realization that her hard-partying classmates are also destined for lustrous adulthoods might be the story’s instigating jolt, but the film also repeatedly reminds its heroines in a variety of ways that their peers are people too, with feelings, talents, and hidden depths. It never does this pedantically, and only rarely with anything like soulful earnestness. It’s a delightful little miracle in its way: a The Breakfast Club (1985) message smuggled inside an outlandish Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) package.

Unlike both Superbad and Blockers, Wilde’s film eschews rambling Apatow-ian improvisation for tight, rat-a-tat dialogue and intoxicating momentum. (Think Diablo Cody without that screenwriter’s convoluted wordplay and ersatz slang.) Although its vision of high-school life is plainly an absurd exaggeration, the film only rarely veers into off-the-wall silliness – e.g., a stop-motion sequence in which the girls hallucinate that they are trapped in Barbie-doll bodies. Wilde keeps the proceedings humming along splendidly as Molly and Amy pinball their way through not one but three parties, while the comic payoffs and callbacks pile up with gratifying speed. The film isn’t completely seamless, betraying a bit of sloppiness here and there. For example, one of the girls pointedly proposes opening their high-school time capsule – a la last year’s Eighth Grade – but this potential plot point is never shown or mentioned again. When Molly and Amy head to the public library in the hopes of digging up the party’s address through old-school research, it triggers a swaggering musical cue – which is cut short when they abruptly pinpoint their destination via social-media stalking. It feels less like a droll joke than a clumsy, running-time-conscious edit.

Refreshingly for a story set in high school, Booksmart doesn’t have any real villains to speak of: no violent bully; no vicious queen bee; no country-club asshole driving his birthday BMW. It’s an optimistic, raucous Gen Z fable that has no time for sexism, racism, homophobia, or fat-shaming. (There is a bit of slut-shaming, but the film makes a point to smack it down in due course.) The only dragons to be slain are Molly and Amy’s own supercilious misconceptions about their classmates. More than anything, this is what makes Booksmart a quietly radical sort of high-school comedy: It’s a film packed with broad archetypes that feel like lovable characters instead of mean-spirited cartoons.

It certainly helps that the supporting cast is replete with delightful little comedic turns. The adult characters are all enjoyable, especially Jessica Williams as the prototypical Hot, Cool Teacher and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s conservative Christian parents who (paradoxically) are way too enthusiastic about her finding a girlfriend. The real standouts, however, are the high-schoolers. There’s Skyler Gisondo as gregarious rich-boy doofus Jared, who seems to be half Ali G and half Chris Hemsworth’s airhead receptionist from Ghostbusters (2016). There’s Noah Galvin as drama-club commandant George, whose piquant flamboyance is unexpectedly studded with low-key gags. (His summer staging of the Bard’s classics? “Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot.”) The film’s undisputed scene-stealer, however, is Billie Lourd as unclassifiable space cadet Gigi, a fount of questionable druggie wisdom and Gucci excess who seems to pop up wherever Molly and Amy find themselves, like the killer in a slasher film. Thanks in part to this oddball student body, high school has never looked so ridiculous, frenetic, or unforgettable.

Rating: B+