2019, R, 105 min. Directed by Olivia Wilde. Starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga, Austin Crute, Noah Galvin.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 24, 2019
Girls go topless in teen comedies all the time, but none that I can recall stripped for a stop-motion animated, perfect précis of body image anxieties. So yeah, Booksmart is a different kind of teen comedy – clever and buoyant, proudly feminist and wonderfully reassuring that, yeah, the kids are alright.
It’s tempting to shorthand Olivia Wilde's assured directorial debut as Superbad for girls. Booksmart has the same one-wild-night structure, and there’s neat symmetry there, too; star Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) is Jonah Hill’s younger sister. But Booksmart backseats broad set-pieces for more emotionally grounded comedy. (That doesn’t mean the script – credited to Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman – lacks belly laughs.) Primarily Booksmart is about the bond between two best friends, and how that bond can sometimes feel like a burden as both women prepare for college. Feldstein’s Molly is the alpha: class president and valedictorian, Yale-bound, witheringly dismissive of her less academically inclined classmates. Bestie Amy (Dever) is softer, and more searching; she seems content enough to stay a wallflower. But on the eve of graduation, Molly decides that after so much studying hard and playing by the rules, they need to cram four years of acting out into one raucous night. Or, at bare minimum, they need to attend at least one high school party. Wanna bet things don’t go as planned?
Booksmart is so finely textured: in set design (a throwaway Virginia Woolf prop made me giggle) and blocking (campus buzzes with activity, including rather delightfully some random fencers parrying and thrusting in the background of one shot), in the superior soundtrack and original music by Dan the Automator, and, most especially, in the performances. There are small supporting turns from star comic talents (Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, and Wilde’s partner, Jason Sudeikis), and they’re all great. But the movie doesn’t really need them. The kids are doing just fine without the grownups. The charismatic teen cast of mostly unknowns are all coolness as they subvert their assigned types of jock, slut, stoner, and so on. In another movie, Molly and Amy would be reduced to types, too – nerds. Instead, Booksmart lets them be confident in their smarts and (mostly) comfortable in their skin. Refreshingly, their journey is about running toward experience, not away from their essential selves. I imagine a lot of young people will recognize themselves in this movie, and that isn’t something that always happens in teen comedy, either.