I adored Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, a movie that has a deep well of empathy not just for its brainy lead characters, but for teenagers in general. While the trailer makes the film look like it’s in the vein of 2007’s Superbad, my wife made the sharp observation (as usual) that it’s really more like Can’t Hardly Wait, a movie where a bunch of high school seniors have rested on assumptions about each other and it’s only until they’re about to head off to college that they realize their classmates were more complex than they realized. This empathy makes Booksmart more than just a series of raunchy jokes, but a film completely rooted in character relationships and letting us enjoy a night of misadventures vicariously with its leads. Anchored by Wilde’s sharp direction and a terrific supporting cast, Booksmart is a 2019 comedy I can’t wait to revisit.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends who are at the top of their graduating class, but they’re definitely not in the popular crowd. Molly has been comfortable with this bargain, assuming that while she may not have had as much fun, she at least is getting into an Ivy League college. When she discovers that her hard-partying classmates are also getting into top colleges, Molly believes that it’s up to her and Amy to even the score and break some rules before they graduate. Although Amy is reluctant, she agrees to go along with it because the party they’re seeking might have Amy’s crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). As the duo muddles through the evening trying to find the fabled party, their friendship is tested as they realize they might want different things in post-high school life.
Wilde shows that she’s a talent to watch behind the camera, but never has to make things too flashy. Her comic timing is perfect, and she always knows to make the visuals about the characters’ emotions rather than go for dazzling camera moves. But there’s a oner at the second act climax that is one of my favorite moments of the year that takes a scene you know is coming and doesn’t lose an ounce of its power. What makes Wilde such a formidable filmmaker here is that she knows the movie rests on the strength of the characters, and she always finds the perfect way to convey what they’re feeling without ever losing the dramatic or comic energy of a scene.
The filmmaker can trust putting the emphasis on her characters because she has such a strong cast to work with. I wouldn’t be surprised if five years from now we look back at Booksmart and see a collection of A-list talent that just happened to be in the same movie. That’s not to say that Booksmart is going to be what launches everyone (in an ideal world, this movie would be one of the biggest hits of the summer, but we don’t live in an ideal world), but rather that the talent of everyone here is undeniable. I’ve been a fan of Feldstein since Neighbors 2 and Dever since Short Term 12, and the pair is magnificent together. If we’re going to make Superbad comparisons, there’s no reason why Feldstein and Dever shouldn’t have the long and successful careers of Jonah Hill (yes, I know he’s Feldstein’s brother) and Michael Cera.
What’s remarkable is how there’s so much talent all the way down in this cast. Billie Lourd is a scene stealer playing the bizarre Gigi. Skyler Gisondo is so endearing as classmate Jared who manages to play an uber-wealthy teen that doesn’t come off like a jerk. Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Noah Galvin, Austin Crute, and the list goes on of young actors who make an impression even though they have a relatively brief amount of screen time. Wilde knew to trust her young actors and her trust wasn’t misplaced. For Booksmart to work, it can’t just be that the other teenagers realize Molly and Amy are cool; the duo have to realize that they misjudged their classmates as well, so we need those characters to be relatable in their own way. It all comes together wonderfully.
Although there are few times where Booksmart strains credulity in a few ways that are common to the coming-of-age story, it never breaks its central theme about reappraising the people who you thought were your enemies as well as your friends. The growing up Molly and Amy have to do isn’t that they weren’t “fun” enough as much as they built their identities on a combination of superiority and resentment without even bothering to learn who their classmates were. This doesn’t make them bad people; it makes them teenagers, and within the bounds of the incredibly warm and funny comedy of Booksmart, their story is both uplifting and hilarious.