Film

Booksmart

School’s out forever

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Booksmart besties Molly and Amy pretty much aced high school. Valedictorian and student-body president Molly (Beanie Feldstein) was accepted to Yale, her top-choice university—and the first step in her goal of becoming the youngest Supreme Court justice—while study buddy and super-activist Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) plans to spend some time volunteering in Botswana before continuing her studies at Columbia. All those late nights at the library paid off—except that somewhere along the way, these two were so busy worrying about their futures that they missed out on being teenagers.

That realization strikes when Molly, ducking into a super-skanky school lavatory where the graffiti is funnier than your average high school movie, overhears three presumed burnouts trash-talking her. Confronting them, she discovers that through some grave karmic mistake, two are headed to top schools and the other has landed a mid-six-figure job at Google. “This is not possible!” Molly protests. “You guys don’t even care about school!” To which the more popular girl snaps back, “No, we just don’t only care about school.”

And so, now, on the last night of their high school careers, Molly and Amy aim to cram everything they missed into one, unforgettable night: crashing a wild house party, taking hallucinogenic drugs, projectile vomiting on a possible soul mate and—for one lucky overachiever—spending the night in jail. None of this is what you’d expect from the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, who cracked Harvard grads Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins’ script, which had been kicking around Hollywood for nearly a decade.

Comedy is hard, and doesn’t get a lot of respect within the industry, but Wilde saw that something was missing from the crowded field of R-rated, end-of-innocence comedies: These high-scoring young ladies not only routinely ruin the curve for their fellow students, but they also pass the Bechdel Test with ease. Instead of reinforcing the same tired values that male directors have been peddling for years—where boys obsess about losing their virginity, freely objectifying the girls in their class—Booksmart matter-of-factly introduces one of its leads as a lesbian while presenting a view of female sexuality in which men are incidental. What’s more, the film rejects the notion that conquests ought to be so central to coming-of-age stories, delivering a romp that’s every bit as outrageous as American Pie or Porky’s while shifting its focus away from hookups to whether their friendship can withstand such a wild and crazy night.

Not since Superbad has a high school comedy so perfectly nailed how exhilarating it feels to act out at that age, capturing the thrill of making a series of potentially irreversible mistakes with the person who’s always been there for you, even as it acknowledges the inevitability that said confidante can’t be your wing-woman forever.

Every generation needs its own rowdy high school comedy, and millennials deserve one that treats the anxieties teens have been grappling with for millennia with the same urgency that Jerry Bruckheimer would bring to a high-stakes action movie. Once Molly and Amy commit to crashing the night-before-graduation party where all the cool kids are going, Booksmart takes off with the nitro boost of a Bad Boys sequel—leaning on a hip-hop soundtrack that’s infinitely cooler than its characters to supply much of its energy.

Rather than admonishing nerds with some lecture about priorities, or coming straight out and telling teens that it’s O.K. to make mistakes en route to responsibility, Booksmart demonstrates that even know-it-alls like Molly and Amy have a lot to learn. That’s what’s so endearing about the film’s central pair: They use their intelligence to overcompensate for an assortment of other insecurities, rapid-firing the kind of useless trivia that would make them ideal Jeopardy! contestants, but confess ignorance when it comes to the basics—like the birds and the bees, or what to wear to a house party.

Still, for all their book smarts, Molly and Amy may actually be remedial when it comes to common sense, scoring far higher in IQ than EQ. That makes for some pretty entertaining situations, whether trying to sneak past Amy’s folks (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) or attempting to extort a pizza delivery guy (Michael Patrick O’Brien) for directions to the party.

Credit Wilde—who quietly practiced on a couple of shorts prior to this—for sustaining both the laughter and the energy throughout, and for pulling off several bold surprises along the way, including a stop-motion sequence that employs Barbie-like figurines to unexpectedly empowering effect. In this year’s class of first-time feature directors, Wilde handily earns the title of Most Likely to Succeed.

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