Once the domain of creepy uncles and later-arrested gym teachers, watching awkward high school girls come of age has in recent years also become one hell of a comedy sub-genre. 2016 gave us the charming The Edge of Seventeen, 2017 brought the fantastic Lady Bird, the next year came the painfully funny Eighth Grade, and now 2019 has its entry with Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s surprisingly deft, rollicking directorial debut.
The film stars Beanie Feldstein (who already stole scenes in Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever as Molly and Amy (respectively), a pair of otherwise near-friendless teens who’ve spent their entire high school careers focused on their grades. Their work pays off by getting each into their colleges of choice–but, whoops, turns out a lot of their less studious also got into their top picks, and did it while getting drunk, smoking pot, and dating. With graduation around the corner (literally the next day), and the girls about to split off for their different universities, they decide to find their way into the Big Party of the night, try to get laid, get into some rowdy hijinks, have a run-in with cops, a run-in with a maniac… You know the drill.
While the elevator pitch is pretty clearly “Superbad, but with girls,” reducing Booksmart to that logline isn’t necessarily fair, even if largely makes sense: Feldstein fits the overbearing, blowhard Jonah Hill/Seth mold, while Dever occupies the puny, uncomfortable Michael Cera/Evan mold. (Also of note: Felstein is Jonah Hill’s sister.) But Booksmart finds enoguh of its own personality to transcend just being a lazy gender switcheroo.
Instead of trying to replicate Superbad’s deliberate raunchiness, screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman build a genuinely sweet and relatable relationship between codependent best friends–replate with shorthand dialogue and terms, empathetic group-thinking, and committal to bits that invariably amuse only each other. Not to suggest the script purely values heart over laughs, though: it’s pretty damn funny, too.
Still, while the writers deserve their due, a lot of the laughs belong thoroughly to the cast. Feldstein and Dever have said they became actual besties on the set, and it shows in a chemistry that carries the film. And as good as they are, they’re often overshadowed by a game supporting cast. Billie Lourd steals scenes as the insane, omnipresent, unkillable wildcard Gigi, proving herself more than just a background Resistance fighter and Reynolds/Fisher scion; Noah Galvin draws some of the biggest laughs as a self-serious drama kid holding his own murder mystery party; and the adult cast is flush with comedy ringers like Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Jessica Williams, and Mr. Wilde, aka Jason Sudeikis.
Though Wilde herself holds back from ever actually stealing the spotlight in front of the camera, her work behind is adroit and stylish for a first feature. The “one crazy night” concept is a thin, dog-eared premise that can (and has) been shot with little flair, but Wilde work some fun camerawork and unexpectedly bizarre moments in there (in particular, a pseudo-stop-motion sequence that owes a slight tip of the mortarboard to A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas if not Welcome to Marwen). Plus, getting Dan the Automator to do the soundtrack was an absolutely inspired success.
On the whole, Booksmart is largely a win too, if not always so inspired. Cozily derivative, it runs breathlessly through a series of tropes and scenarios seen, in some form or another, many times before. But as an earnest, lightweight little teen comedy, it reiterates the point its leads needed to learn: it’s possible to not take things too seriously, have a little fun, but still work hard enough for the decent grade.
Director: Olivia Wilde
Studio: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 105 minutes
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis