High school is a weird beast taking place at a weird time in everyone’s lives. It’s where you’re expected to work extremely hard, but make enough friends and party enough to make it a memorable four years. It’s also where kids are trusted with the pressure of making critical life decisions. In Booksmart, the directorial debut for Olivia Wilde, the idea of enjoying and appreciating the ride during the formative years of your life is the drama behind the laughs. Even while portraying an idealistic California setting, Booksmart packs it’s characters with enough existential anxiety to prevent it from being the shallow, tone-deaf high school fantasy it could’ve easily presented.
The film focuses on Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), a couple of straight-A outcasts who essentially have no one but each other in their social circle. Molly is the pushy one. She’s going to be valedictorian, she’s the current school president, and she meditates in the morning while listening to passive aggressive motivational tapes. Amy is more timid, even as she’s recently come out as queer; she can’t even ask out her crush, mostly because she doesn’t even know if her crush is gay aswell, a dilemma few pieces of media depict accurately.
Molly and Amy seem content to remain low-key for the last few days of senior year, until Molly learns that all the ‘lazy’ kids still got into great colleges. Even one of the allegedly promiscuous girls (Molly Gordon), who the school nicknames Tripe A due her “roadside assistance”, is going to Yale just like Molly. Feeling she’s wasted 4 years without having any fun, this prompts Molly to convince Amy to go with her to the final senior party that night. But first, they have to find the place, which proves difficult since they have no other friends to give them the address, leading to a wild goose chase across the city as they find themselves in one absurd predicament after another.
It would be easy to point out that Booksmart owes it’s premise to a plethora of teen comedies where the main characters have a goal in mind to properly cap their senior year. You could even view the film as a gender-swapped Superbad (2007), and there’s genuinely enough nods to that film (including the final moments of Booksmart) to make it an apt comparison. But Booksmart still manages to stand tall on it’s own, due to the remarkable chemistry among the incredibly committed cast, an A+ script, and an outstanding debut from director Olivia Wilde. Wilde directs the film efficiently, displaying great pacing and timing. But that doesn’t stop her from taking some moments to play with the form aswell as space and time. Not all of her experiments land, but she displays so much confidence in portraying a loose relationship with reality that it can be forgiven. If she wants to pursue directing full time, I look forward to what she does next.
But Wilde’s flashy directing style doesn’t negate the work put into establishing believable characters. The characters feel like people who interact with each other every day rather than a group of actors meeting for a 60 day shoot. Feldstein and Dever feel like they’ve known each other since the womb. Even the authority figures, Principal Jordan (Jason Sudeikis) and Mrs. Fine (Jessica Williams), have a rapport with the students that convinces us of their familiarity. And Billie Lourd, here playing the most bizarre character in the film, feels like a star in the making. I can imagine several of the players here going on to eventually have breakout careers, and we’ll recall that this was the film where they shared the screen together.
What could’ve easily played as a tired premise feels fresh because of the great material everyone has to work with. Films such as Mean Girls (2004) and Easy A (2007) also featured unexpectedly shrewd and brazen screenplays, and Booksmart can comfortably join that pantheon of female-led teen comedies. Here, we’re still playing with typical high school tropes such as the nerd, the jock, the high kids, the drunk kids. But unlike many of the films that inspire it, Booksmart allows their characters dignity and depth beyond the tropes.
To paraphrase one character, it’s not that some of the students don’t care about school, it’s just not all they care about. That’s what makes high school such a frustrating time because it always feels like you’re running out of time. How do you balance the work with the partying? How do you avoid labeling the classmates you barely know? Booksmart wants us to contemplate how we behave and how we view our peers. If you’re a little uptight, let loose a little. The characters in Booksmart get shit done, but if you don’t enjoy the ride along the way then it’s all for naught.