When Superbad first came out in 2007, it was an immediate favourite of mine. It presented an authentic take on male friendship, the horror of the high school experience and gave a real voice to those teenagers who weren’t the social and confident teenagers of the upper echelons from Gossip Girl, The OC, et cetera. One will think that Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut pays a debt to Superbad, and in so ways there are parallels, but as far as original storytelling goes, the comparisons end there.
Los Angelinos Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are two socially conscious, empowered, smart, culturally-on-the-pulse know-it-alls. From the outset it’s clear that Molly has a massive superiority complex, listening to mantras on leadership in the morning and sprinkling references of Yale University at school without mentioning the name of the college. Meanwhile Amy plans to go to Botswana to volunteer before starting college. They are both headstrong women who see value in studying and believe that they are superior to the jocks and popular girls of their school. They are book smart, having sacrificed partying for the chance to excel even more at life. But their expectations come tumbling down when they learn that even the lazy ones, the partiers and the popular kids also got into Ivy Leagues. From this they decide to live a wild night to make up for their quiet years, and naturally drama ensues.
There are lots of excellent things about Booksmart. First off, the characters feel real. Molly truly is an obnoxious and holier-than-thou figure, who’s quick wit and demeanor feels palpable through the screen. Her obsession with showing that she is now smart and fun drives most of the plot. Amy, a lesbian with the chance to pounce at her first crush, is faithful; she is earnest and still coming into her own. Other supporting characters are so fleshed out even though the film only features them occasionally, you just know people just like these.
Of course, what gives the film life is the excellent script by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. Booksmart isn’t crass in a broad male humour sort of way. The comedy is clever and conscious, never to a fault. It’s fast, witty, feminist and perfectly balanced so you’re neither watching a skit or an after school special. Two young ladies talking about sex, in a raw, real way comes across as revolutionary, but also makes you think that these conversations do happen in real life.
Wilde succeeds as a director really taps into the highs and lows of being a teenager, it never glamourizes it nor degrades it. She shows it as it is – sometimes a triumph, sometimes a shitshow, but never comes across in a “I told you so way”, particularly in the end when the opportunity presents itself to do so. The addition of Amy’s sexuality shouldn’t feel groundbreaking but it is, and more so because she isn’t the butt of jokes for being a gay virgin. Carefully choreographed scenes of fights, parties and even a stop-motion sequence of Barbie’s are a refreshing addition to the teen film trope. Yet at no point is the story sacrificed for the visuals, and Wilde leaves scenes in your mind long after leaving the cinema.
Feldstein and Dever are superb in these breakout roles. They come at the roles the right way, knowing they are intelligent but socially lame, and that the condescension isn’t necessarily from a bad place, but a chance to reclaim their high school archetype. They have an indisputable chemistry thereby they play off one another in a sweet albeit cringe-worthy way, but it’s also a believable friendship with problems of its own. Supporting performances from Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Noah Galvin, Victoria Ruesda, Diana Silvers, and more all add to the brilliant journey, in a sort of Breakfast Club way. The film would not succeed without all their inputs.
The film is a rare gem that aims to be progressive, feminist and inclusive, and it works. No jokes have been forgone and the laughs keep coming. It has an air of independent cinema about it, likely because it stars two teenage girls whose purpose isn’t just to make boys fall for them. Lastly it flows seamlessly, emphasising Wilde’s effortlessness in her storytelling whilst also touching the heart for teenagers and older audiences alike. For this reason Booksmart is the best high school comedy of the last five years and one of the best comedies of the year.
A brilliant, sharp comedy that feels refreshing in the teen film genre. The ensemble cast shine at every minute and Bernstein and Dever soar. Wilde’s handling of the material is pitch perfect and sentimental at times without feeling too sugary. This is one memorable and relatable fare that will be remembered for many years.
At times the touchpoints of the film feel very similar to Superbad and characterisations mirror the characters at times. But Booksmart rises above to stand on its own and even surpass it.
Originally published on Back Row, 24 July, 2019.