Booksmart - Review

Booksmart feels like a first introduction to everyone involved.

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Booksmart is hilarious. Forget comparisons, forget the relatively green main cast and director; there is very little Booksmart does wrong, and though it follows clear conventions, it’s supported by a cast and script strong enough to prop it up.

Olivia Wilde is now in the same category as Greta Gerwig. After years spent directing music videos for Edward Sharpe and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, her directorial debut is a witty teen comedy that casts high school as a battleground. There aren’t the usual jocks and weirdos; instead Booksmart depicts a well-researched version of modern-day high school, one in which personalities co-exist, not unlike the breathtaking casualness of a coral reef. It’s seen in the general contempt but overall tolerance of Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), the two straight-A girls who’s worlds are shattered when they learn that the kids who partied in high school got into the same A-list schools as them. Inspiring a night of excess rivaling Superbad’s “last year of high school!” vibe, Booksmart takes an old concept and makes it fresh.

Feldstein and Dever are, deservedly, the highlights of Booksmart. Their hyper-positive cheering-on, their berets; there’s nothing not to love about the close-as-sisters pair, and that’s before we’ve spent a night with them. Their dancing on the way to class in the first scene sets up a duo with charm, heart, and intelligence. These aren’t the sex-obsessed boys of Knocked Up or American Pie. Like the ardent feminists they are, sex is on the list, but is only the goal when it needs to be. By the time Molly and Amy arrive at the party to end all parties, love comes into focus, but before that it’s a free for all. Casting from resident genius Allison Jones is spot on, nailing stereotypes while injecting a fair amount of emotion into every character; just enough to make them feel like people you’ve run into.

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In the face of never-ending jokes, Booksmart strikes a few poignant emotional notes that neatly break up the story into a logical coming-of-age narrative. It’s visible a mile away that picture-perfect Molly and Amy are headed for a rude awakening, but even when it comes, it’s hard to knock the style in which Wilde directs it. As the two friends lash out, cameras and phones slowly turn toward them as the volume goes down. It enforces the idea that once something is filmed, it exists forever; the high school experience today exists largely through Snapchat, so why shouldn’t the focus of the film’s climax be captured on it? It’s rare to see a film this smart that also knows when to cut out of a joke to make room for emotion, and Booksmart manages to make the expectation worth something.

Booksmart has the air of a filmmaker well-versed in what she’s making. Wilde has studied the cuts, special sequences, and resolutions of coming-of-age classics, and come out with a grand achievement. Between this and the instant chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, there’s rarely a beat that Booksmart doesn’t nail. A little extra star power in the form of Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow pushes it just over the edge, and into the cult territory it has been designed to please.