This review was originally published during 2019’s South by Southwest festival. We are republishing the piece as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Throughout the illustrious history of the modern high-school movie, the archetypes haven’t changed all that much. Thirty-four years after The Breakfast Club, we still have athletes and brains, princesses and criminals, mean girls, drama dorks, freaks and geeks. The balance and portrayal of those types shift depending on each film’s needs, but the building blocks essentially stay the same. Recently, however, a new archetype of late-2010s teendom has begun to take shape — the socially conscious busybody, the walking #thread, Tracy Flicks with Netflix accounts, pre-THC Abbi and Ilanas, neither loser nor winner but Type A all the way. Lady Bird was one, Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina is another. And Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s undeniably winning feature directorial debut, feels like an official coronation of the type, in all its cringey, sincere glory.
In Booksmart, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, respectively, best friends and overachieving middle-class Los Angeles high-school seniors approaching graduation day. They’re far from the cool kids’ table, but they still manage to look down their noses on all of their classmates, assured that their reward after years of studious devotion awaits them in heaven — i.e. Yale for Molly, Columbia for Amy. But on the last day of school they are horrified to realize that many of their fun-loving, partying, sexually active classmates also got into Ivies — well, except for the skater kid who’s skipping college and going straight to six figures at Google. Realizing that perhaps their sacrifices over the past four years were for naught, they become determined to go to the biggest, most debaucherous pre-graduation party in town so that they can at least say they had one night of fun in high school.
What makes Booksmart land so delightfully is Wilde’s handle on exactly how seriously to take her neurotic heroines. Molly and Amy are essentially good, uncool girls, but they are so invested in their identity as good, uncool girls that they’re blind to how condescending they can be to the people they assume are looking down at them. (Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen also touched on this dynamic to more dramatic effect.) The film doesn’t punish them for this so much as poke well-intentioned fun at them, as well as every other goofball, doofus, and oblivious rich kid peer of theirs. Wilde builds out a fantastically colorful high-school ensemble, with nearly every individual getting a memorable mini-arc within the cacophony — from the intensely self-serious drama gays (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute) to the desperate-to-be-liked billionaire’s son (Skyler Gisondo) to the hot girl bully (Diana Silvers). It’s a raunchy but ultimately empathetic Greek chorus of teenage idiocy.
But no level of ensemble wackiness could ever upstage stars Feldstein and Dever. The two have chemistry that sings — we believe they are fully capable of getting high off their own two-person collective effervescence. (There are several interludes during which Molly and Amy pause to appreciate how amazing the other looks, quick rounds of hyperbolic one-upmanship that are howlingly funny and sweet.) Watching them squirm out of a tragically under-attended yacht party, or try to figure out lesbian sex via porn — and then have said porn picked up by the Bluetooth at a very inopportune moment — is a rapid-fire delight. There are four credited screenwriters on the film, but at no point does the film feel sanded down by a zillion revisions; each gag and punch line rings like a bell (and Booksmart is stuffed to the gills with bells).
If there’s one distracting element of the film, it’s the soundtrack, as overachieving and restless as its heroines, jam-packed with five-second snippets of NPR-approved indie pop. Everything else in Booksmart feels like a small miracle — from the cast to the script to Wilde’s out-of-the-gate command as a director, especially in some visually and spatially ambitious scenes during the big final party scene (Wilde had directed several shorts and musicals prior to Booksmart). Much of Amy’s plotline revolves around her trying to get the attention of a cool skater girl (Victoria Ruesga), and Amy’s sexuality is treated with the same normalcy and awkwardness and humor as every other character’s sexuality. (In trying to suss out which way her crush swings, she stammers “would you … also … have a hard time visiting Uganda?”)
Booksmart manages to be inclusive and progressive, without being precious about anything or sacrificing an ounce of humor. It feels at once like a huge moment for the teen movie genre, and also effortless, effortless enough to make one wonder what took so long. Of course, I have a pretty good idea, in a broad sense. (It’s the endemic Hollywood sexism, stupid.) But even if it feels like it’s been a long time coming, Booksmart is no less appreciated, and pitch perfect for right here, and right now.