Smart and Funny
Whether for good or bad, we were all labeled in high school. And whether we liked it or not, one of the most awkward times of our lives undoubtedly became the indelible forehead stamp that each of us has tried to erase ever since.
And much like the unending effort each of us would spend attempting to change those high school labels so unfairly brandished upon us, Booksmart -- with Olivia Wilde at the helm in her debut turn behind the camera -- sets out to give us a film that changes the labels we give to high school movies.
Yes, Booksmart is yet another in the long list of high school teen comedies that takes on all things awkward and uncomfortable. From Superbad to Sixteen Candles to The Breakfast Club and Juno, the list is endless. But Booksmart isn’t your typical high school teen comedy. It is one of the most authentic and earnest takes on today’s high school kids that you are likely to see.
One could call it audacious or even irresponsible for a first-time director to try to put a new spin on such a well-worn drama. But Wilde gets high marks for her new take on the genre that feels like the work of a seasoned professional. Her Booksmart is a smart and funny female-centric romp through the intimate inner workings of friendship and what it means to have someone’s back.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy) are best friends and academic overachievers who have chosen grades over popularity as the senior year at their Los Angeles-area high school comes to a close. With Ivy League acceptance letters in hand and graduation approaching in the coming days, the two suddenly realize that they’ve missed out on a whole other side of high school life.
With the newfound realization that many of their “party animal” classmates managed to accomplish both the fun part of school as well as the academic part, the two girls decide to cram an entire four year’s worth of partying into a single night before tomorrow’s graduation ceremony. Cue the booze, drugs, and care-free debauchery as the pair heads out on an evening-long search to get to Nick’s (Mason Gooding) party where Molly hopes Amy can finally hook up with her lesbian crush, skater chick classmate Ryan (real-life professional skateboarder Victoria Ruesga).
The script, credited to Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), who works from earlier iterations by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins, features rapid-fire banter and just the right amount of raunch and racy dialogue to make it absolutely worthy of its salacious "R" rating. Still, the film’s funniest moments are always countered by scenes loaded with tons of heart and charm.
One of the most difficult things to get right in a film like this is the tone, but Wilde absolutely nails it with great energy, tons of heart, and a self-reverential awareness that reminds us that we are all in this thing to have fun. She takes us on a ride through the story’s truly tear-jerking moments, its scenes of laugh-out-loud hilarity, and even a scene that features our two main characters as stop-motion animated dolls. It is all just perfect.
But none of this would work without the dynamic chemistry between Feldstein and Dever whose characters lead us on an endearing arc of growth and maturity, while never forgetting the playfulness of being goofy eighteen-year-olds.
The supporting cast of characters featuring Skyler Gisondo, Jessica Williams, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers, and others almost always works. In addition, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents are always one of the film’s funniest recurring bits while Jason Sudeikis also carries his weight as the school’s principal, who Molly and Amy learn carries a peculiar second job to make ends meet.
Any other high school teen comedy would stop at the usual stock characters: the jock, the nerd, the slut, the brain, etc. But Wilde takes us to many previously unexplored places with her characters and what they do. She clearly knows how to set us up for a joke, yet she also handles the brutally honest relationships of these lovable characters to near perfection. As a result, we fall in love with nearly every one of them.
Calling Booksmart a heartfelt love letter to high school doesn’t exactly make watching it sound like a particularly pleasant experience. Nor does it completely capture the great things Wilde has accomplished with her film. But we’ve all endured those graceless high school years, and to make us take a look back at them with any amount of fondness is an accomplishment in itself. Wilde has done that here.
Every generation deserves a high school teen comedy to call its very own. Congratulations, current high schoolers. Here’s yours.
(Released by Annapurna Pictures and rated “R” for strong sexual content and language throughout.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.