Reviewed on: May 23rd, 2019
Every generation needs their definitive end-of-high-school movie, something that captures both the staple movie depiction of legendary parties and much more true-to-life bittersweet sensation of knowing you’re entering a new phase of life. Millennials had Superbad. Gen X got Can’t Hardly Wait. Dazed and Confused hit the end-of-school emotional bullseye for late-era boomers.
Booksmart, the stunning directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, is Gen-Z’s high school graduation movie, and may very well rank among the best of the genre. Wilde’s raucously funny movie is sweet, poignant, crazy, and empowering in the way movies about high school kids finding their voice should be. That it is diverse and female-centric makes it all the more surprising and real.
What’s It About?
High school seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are best friends and academic achievers with big plans for their college careers. On the last day of school, Molly discovers that she and Amy aren’t the only ones heading to Ivy League colleges. Their goofball classmates–stoners, jocks, nerds and burnouts alike–also got into great schools, without sacrificing their social lives.
Desperate to make up for lost time, Molly convinces Amy to come with her to the biggest party of the night. There’s just one catch: neither of them were invited, and they don’t know the address. The girls’ journey turns into an all-night odyssey to finally prove to themselves and the rest of their classmates that they are as fun as they are smart.
Booksmart contains all the major story beats you expect from a great teen party movie, and many of the same tropes, but done in a way that’s far more compassionate and real-seeming than its predecessors. Molly and Amy aren’t prudish, or frustrated, or clueless. They’re strong and smart, exactly the kind of kids who had a rough time socially in high school, but who you know will flourish after graduation.
The girls’ friendship is fiercely supportive, and it’s a delight to watch Feldstein and Dever bounce off each other. Booksmart understands Molly and Amy deeply, and gives them the story they deserve, following them through a night of heartbreak, triumph and bonding that plays like wish-fulfillment for every kid who wishes their high school experience had been just a little crazier.
Molly and Amy are surrounded by a colorful gallery of characters who could very easily fit into simple stereotypes (popular kids, over-the-top theater nerds, stoners, tough kids) but are instead multi-faceted and extremely likable. Wilde and screenwriters Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman seem to have taken pages from movies like Eighth Grade and Dazed and Confused in the fluid, distinctive way it depicts its various characters, and how they relate to each other.
Feldstein and Dever anchor the movie with wit, sarcasm and joy, but just as fun are the great turns from the supporting cast. Jessica Williams is wise and funny as cool English teacher Miss Fine; Jason Sudeikis’ Principal Brown has some awkward side-hustles. The standout, however, may be Billie Lourd as Gigi, the girls’ chaotic pixie classmate who pops up throughout the night to sow mischief and bizarre maybe-flirtation.
Throughout, Wilde proves to be an extremely talented director, putting a lot of trust in her skilled cast–many of whom are relative unknowns. It pays off, with natural performances and chemistry that lets each member of the ensemble leave a strong impression. Wilde’s also got a strong visual sense, playing with visual styles that range from dreamy to nightmarish to naturalistic. Booksmart is clearly a movie made with a lot of love and care, and it bleeds through in every frame.
It’s hard to find something not to love about Booksmart. However, individuals’ love of the movie may vary depending on how much they enjoy the genre, along with its many possibilities for gross-out humor. Booksmart has a lot of frank discussions about sex and female sexuality, most of which play into the awkward and hormonally-charged nature of the teenage experience. If the humor of a movie like Superbad doesn’t sit well with you, Booksmart may not overwhelm you with its charm. Come with an open mind, though, and you’ll likely have a great time.
Booksmart appears destined to be an instant classic of the high school movie genre. It’s an extremely modern, diverse, female-forward version of a story ripe for reinvention opportunities. Olivia Wilde has given us a great movie about female friendship, high school cliques and correcting assumptions, in the clothes of a plot about all-night parties and loosening up. It’s the perfect way to kick off summer, say goodbye to school, or embrace your inner awkward teenager.