Review: ‘Booksmart’ braves the wilds of high school in Olivia Wilde’s directorial bow

If there’s one thing to take away from “Booksmart,” Olivia Wilde’s rambunctious and unexpectedly tender directorial debut, it’s the assurance that these high school comedies will never feel outdated. There isn’t a more appropriate canvas for filmmakers to paint loss-of-innocence stories than the final, unsure, panic-inducing hurrahs of high school, but the template feels more malleable than ever.

Leave it to John Carney and Greta Gerwig and Greg Mottola to prove as much, their respective efforts united only by their timelessness.

Like engaging in questionably legal or sexually awkward adventures for the first time with people we only thought we knew before, the act of watching a high school story is a special kind of communal movie-going experience. We’re all drawn together by the shared lack of knowledge and preparation over just what the hell we were getting ourselves into that characterized those last few days of teendom; the raw truthfulness goes hand-in-hand with the “Yep, been there” weary-but-sweet nostalgia.   

“Dazed and Confused,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “Superbad,” “Lady Bird”—every generation seems to have its own cornerstone of the genre, and each is piercingly indicative of its time and age.

This is true, too, for Wilde’s perfectly-paced movie, a contemporary product in substance and style as much as it’s universally considered. Warren 2020 bumper stickers and framed photos of Ruth Bader Ginsberg are glimpsed in the opening minutes as we are introduced to the exceptionally funny central pairing of Beanie Feldstein’s Molly and Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy at the start of their final day in high school. They’ve clearly got more to look forward to than to look back on—the attitude subtlety underscores how transforming the next 24 hours will be.

As they walk through the halls of their school – confetti flying, teens shouting, an end looming –  we also spot, in rapid-fire fashion, glimpses of the walking talking high school archetypes we already know so well not only from movies, but from our own past. And though we see them only through Molly and Amy’s eyes (as intentional a decision as an organic one) there’s also an enthusiastic sense of social construct combustibility to a degree that is so convincingly late-2010s.

“Booksmart” thrives on that insistence not to compartmentalize its stereotypes. Wilde directs the hell out of Katie Silberman’s screenplay, bringing to life a high school ecosystem that doesn’t live and die by the actions of its warring tribes, instead finding an emotional core in the margins of high school vulnerability. And those spaces are everywhere.

But Molly and Amy as we meet them haven’t yet chosen to be vulnerable. They’ve made the decision to stave off partying and procrastination in order to collect straight As and getting into the colleges of their dreams. The plan worked, but it did for everyone else, too. Stanford, Harvard, Yale—Molly and Amy didn’t realize until their final hours of high school life that they could have still worked their way into Ivy League while breaking some rules along the way.

And what better day to break rules than the night before high school graduation? Where we might see desperation, Amy and Molly see an opportunity to move deeper into the labyrinth of high school society they thought they’d been just fine avoiding until now. They just have to make sure they make it out before graduation the following morning.

It’s easy to compare “Booksmart” to “Superbad,” perhaps still the gold standard of 21st-century raunch fests with a vodka-soaked heart of gold. In both movies a central pair of best friends embark on a night they are wholly unprepared for, venturing into the wilds of high school parties. Molly and Amy don’t get mercilessly ripped apart like Seth and Evan do, though; Wilde’s movie isn’t a family affair (sanitation and truthful high school stories rarely go hand-in-hand) but it’s still some degrees removed from the operatically rowdy world conjured up by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

(The cinematic influences don’t end with “Superbad”; “Booksmart” has more in common with “Lady Bird” than star-in-the-making Beanie Feldstein.)

The dialogues and perversions that “Booksmart” does indulge in, meanwhile, feel totally of this world. You get the idea before not too long that Amy and Molly were held hostage by judgements they harbored about their classmates – we see a bit of that in the movie’s opening minutes – and Silberman’s screenplay deconstructs them in ways that feel completely naturalistic, humbling the movie’s central duo as they bounce around LA trying to get to a party.

Felstein and Devers shine all the while, and the sideline personalities of “Booksmart” – hilarious and dramatic and hilariously dramatic – are a huge reason why the movie remains a buoyant experience through and through that rarely feels tiresome. It was near-impossible to stop smiling over the course of this movie’s two hours, and if I wasn’t, I was guffawing. It’ been a long time since a movie brought the laughs as fast as they come screaming off Silberman’s screenplay.

Billie Lourd might be the most well-known cog (and, pound-for-pound, the most memorable as the endlessly eccentric Gigi) of “Booksmart’s” largely successful ensemble, but remember the names Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silver, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvan…the list of young careers Hollywood would do well to put into hyperdrive goes on and on. But it starts and ends with Wilde’s newfound directorial chops.

Where “Booksmart” ultimately goes is a supremely satisfying place that almost feels like the movie pulled a fast one on you. How could a movie be so tight of an experience yet feel like the conclusion to several episodes’ worth of a Netflix series? How does it so neatly pull off a bait-and-switch by molding its sentiments not just in the stories of Amy and Molly, harkening us back to our own teenage ride-or-die companionships, but also about the friends they made along the way? How does is so effectively transcend its high school aura by suggesting that next steps at any age in life only mean as much as reckoning with where we’re coming from? How does it manage to feel so embracingly warm when our first thoughts of high school are usually anything but? I’m not quite sure.

But I am quite sure that I’m just fine channeling my high school self in not thinking about it too much, and instead enjoy Molly and Amy’s ride many times over, soaring highs and inevitable dips and all.

 

“Booksmart” is rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking – all involving teens

Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudekis

Directed by Olivia Wilde

2019 

 

 

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