Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is a truly outstanding achievement, and not just because it capitalizes on the best elements of the teen comedy genre. It is far and away one of the best of the decade: timely, self-aware, and full of talent. It’s stacked from back to front, and may even be too full of strong qualities.
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are about to graduate from high school, and have never had the sort of “fun” their peers have had. They’ve never been to an unsupervised party, never broken the rules, and consider themselves “too smart” to get in trouble.
Molly’s idols include Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Michelle Obama. Amy and Molly’s safe word is “Malala.” So when they find out that the people they view as lazy parties are actually attending great colleges in the fall, they have an existential crisis. It is now their mission to attend a party the night before graduation and learn that perhaps it is possible to have both a ton of fun doing dumb things and still go to Yale. You can tell they had very boring college visits.
I don’t think the word “shenanigans’ is a strong enough descriptor of what the girls get up to, but quite frankly, it’s just a fun word to write.
We root for them because they are real — each actor gets a moment of their own — and in some ways, our insecurities stem from our expectations of what life should be like “at our age.” Kaitlyn Dever is pitch-perfect as the quiet one of the pair, whose plan after high school is to travel out of the country to make tampons for women in need. She and Beanie Feldstein take their character’s stories to another level entirely, and even if the script was bad (and it isn’t), they would carry the whole thing to the finish line. If Feldstein’s performance in Lady Bird caught your eye like it did mine, you’ll be excited to know that she is still fantastic, if not better in this film. But the scene-stealing Gigi (Billie Lourd) may be worthy of further exploration… perhaps a sequel could be in order?
What stands out about Booksmart is that it speaks down to no one. When the girls try to convince a stranger to bring them to a party by sneaking a ride in his car, he is annoyed not by the intrusion, rather that the girls didn’t think that he could’ve been a danger. It’s true, and the stupidity of the idea, coupled with the poor execution is a great example of how “booksmart” people sometimes screw up in the (non-theoretical) moment. The audience can cringe from both what happens on screen and also from repressed embarrassing social situations, and the weirdness that goes along with it.
Another standout is the music. It’s made up of the kind of songs I would’ve chosen myself if made this movie, and completely sets the tone of exciting and new things, even though some of the songs are 10 years old. The perennial favorite “You Oughta Know” and “I’m Going Down” in last month’s Little tap right into the best hairbrush microphone karaoke memories.
No matter what the scores may be on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or whatever, if you’re interested, go see this movie in theaters, if only to support exciting new voices in film.