Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Premise: On the eve of graduation, two overachieving best friends (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) feel as though they’ve missed out on the fun of high school and try to make up for lost time by crashing a party.
What Works: A lot of one-crazy-night-in-high-school films are about male characters and their relationships while women are often limited to the part of a fantasy object. Booksmart puts a feminine spin on that formula. Best friends Amy and Molly realize that they’ve missed out on the social experience of high school and set out to attend a party. This story approaches a familiar rite of passage from a distinctly female point of view. Nearly every major role in the movie is female and Booksmart also includes gay and gender-fluid characters. That alone distinguishes Booksmart from similar films. Booksmart’s greatest asset is its characters. Everyone in this movie is vivid and distinct even when they fulfill a familiar high school archetype. The movie is led by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein and they make a likable comedy team. Dever and Feldstein have an authentic rapport as young women who have been friends for years and their comic timing is impeccable. The rest of the cast is terrific as well. Especially notable is Billie Lourd as a frenetic party girl and Skyler Gisondo as a guy who tries desperately to get others to like him. While these characters fulfill high school movie plot functions they also possess humanity that makes them appealing and interesting. Booksmart is very funny. The dialogue is glib and the comedy combines wit and raunch. Booksmart is the feature film directorial debut of Olivia Wilde and she is a confident and energetic filmmaker. Wilde moves the camera in ways that are smart and slick and capture the subtitles of the actors’ performances.
What Doesn’t: Booksmart adheres closely to the one-crazy-night-in-high-school template as seen in American Graffiti, Sixteen Candles, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, and Superbad among many others. The plot and trajectory of the characters is familiar and Booksmart offers few new ideas about young adulthood. However, every generation gets at least one film like this and Booksmart adequately reimagines this kind of story for the 2019 audience. But Booksmart also feels as though it was created by someone who is at least a generation removed from its characters. Unlike John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club or Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, which had an authentic feel for the youth of their time, Booksmart’s vision of contemporary high school appears to have been cultivated by social media rather than the lived experience of present day high schoolers. And in particular, Booksmart’s depiction of adolescence is informed by an upper class point of reference that is oblivious to its own privilege. That, and several logical lapses, results in a film that is so removed from reality that its credibility is in question.
Bottom Line: Booksmart is a fun one-crazy-night comedy. The story is familiar and its credibility is strained but the movie is also very funny and populated with likable and interesting characters.
Episode: #751 (June 2, 2019)