Directed by Olivia Wilde
Starring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever
Review by Jon Kissel
Earlier review by Drew Landry
Taking place over the course of 24 hours, Booksmart follows Superbad’s exact trajectory wherein we start at school, take a few unplanned detours, check in with ancillary adults, and arrive at our destination only to have expectations again upturned. The story structure by writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman isn’t breaking new ground. What the writing quartet and Wilde are bringing to the table is a conscious look into an idealized if still imperfect female friendship. Molly and Amy are unquestionably led by the former, but they have both internalized every book and thinkpiece about women supporting each other and sewn all those precepts into their relationship. They praise each other incessantly and refuse to allow either to neg themselves or self-deprecate. Peacemaker Amy and insistent Molly are inevitably due for some conflict, but their deep and purposeful love for each other is always apparent and infectious.
The viewer has no problem glomming on to the central friendship, but each half of it are also worthy of admiration. Feldstein has the harder role as it requires a judgmental unpleasantness and a convincing backpedal on her entire life up to this point. Her bubbliness in letting her hair down goes a long way towards remedying her earlier stridency though her transformation is too abrupt for one evening, especially when she starts every day with a Sigourney Weaver-spoken pump-up tape. Dever has no marks against her. A favorite young actor of mine since Justified, 2019 should serve as her breakout year between this and the very different miniseries Unbelievable. Her Amy is equal parts gangly uncertainty, deadpan bluntness, and optimistic tentativity, and tremendously watchable in total. She communicates the rapid fluctuation between teenage highs and lows, alternating between joyous realizations that something is really happening and the crushing opposite when it doesn’t work out. A pool sequence centering her is one of the year’s best sequences, with the many instances of Amy dancing close behind.
Surrounding Molly and Amy are a cast that a lesser creative team wouldn’t have much time for, or would make straw-man caricatures out of. Instead, Wilde makes everyone largely likable in the same way, such that we’re introduced to supporting characters through Molly’s eyes and realize her perception is flawed. The good-time bros are no more easily dismissable than Molly herself. One can study hard and wear a tank top to school. Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo are particular standouts. Ostensibly a pair of hyper-wealthy scions, Lourd’s Gigi gets the film’s biggest laughs by demonstrating a spooky ability to be everywhere at once, while hangdog Gisondo earns more sympathy than expected. The exception are a pair of gay classmates played by Noah Galvin and Austin Crute who aren’t granted the same stereotype-thwarting that other supporting characters are. Amongst the adults, Wilde and the writers find ways to incorporate teachers, the well-cast Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams, into the night’s goings-on, while Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are excellent foils for Molly and Amy’s first forays into disobedience.
Wilde doesn’t have a comedic background but she proves herself a fast study in Booksmart. The film uses a lot of sharp transitions to make jokes funnier, and there’s a screwball rapport between characters that, though it is sometimes too identifiable as loose improv, keeps the pace quick. Wilde also incorporates some bravura tracking shots like the aforementioned pool sequence that reach for ecstatic truth. There are, however, some blind spots within Booksmart that Wilde, born of elite parents, may not have considered. If it were made in the wake of the college cheating scandal instead of being released in its wake, it’s hard to imagine Booksmart existing as it does. Molly following all the rules and arriving at a result that families wealthier than hers can attain with various shortcuts isn’t something Booksmart considers, instead asserting that everyone’s working as hard as Molly but not being so up front about it. Wilde doesn’t interrogate the power of connections with her debut film, and she’s perhaps not interrogated the impossibility of her own failure, but that’s asking a lot of an otherwise fair and fun comedy. Booksmart generates nonstop laughs and paints recognizably complex characters while still finding time for its cast to show off considerable dramatic chops. That it also doesn’t address class advantages in higher education is no damnable sin. B+