I enjoyed the HELL out of Booksmart. And not just because my own high school best friend was — and, 10 years later, continues to be — very much the Beanie Feldstein to my Kaitlyn Dever. Although I’m sure the relatability factor helped.
Olivia Wilde takes a refreshing, freewheeling approach to the high school coming-of-age story with Booksmart. The set up is familiar: best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) realize they’ve squandered their high school years by always following the rules and, on the night before graduation, decide to cut loose and attend a party hosted by cool guy Nick (Mason Gooding). As you might be able to guess, misadventure ensues.
And yes, films like Superbad and Dazed & Confused come to mind. (Though there’s certainly worse company to be in.) But what makes Booksmart stand apart is the unabashed emotion that Wilde and the film’s quartet of female screenwriters mix in with with its comedy. These types of films do often have a sweetness to them, but Booksmart has an emotional core to it that is rare in a wide release film and that feels distinctly — yes — female. Throw in its representation of a young, out lesbian lead character (acknowledged with a refreshing casualness) and this is a movie that certainly feels like something we haven’t quite seen before..
I did love that Booksmart was goofier than expected and has elements of genuine “gross” humour that’s usually reserved for the boys. And it’s actually very funny. (For example, a scene involving the world’s most uncomfortable Lyft ride with an expected driver.) But in the same film, you get poignant scenes of self-discovery, such as the dreamy pool sequence that comes late in the film, and the chain reaction of emotional unspooling that follows it.
No doubt driven by her experience as an actress herself, Wilde lets her leads have some wonderfully genuine, intimate moments as it goes along, which I was a bit afraid wasn’t going to happen during the film’s fairly broad first act. But it sneaks up on you. Dever, in particular, gives a performance that is stunningly natural and that grows to something pretty spectacular. That won’t surprise anyone who has seen her previous work in Short Term 12 or Men, Women and Children, but Booksmart shows a next level of growth from her and is the perfect showcase for her skills.
The supporting characters were a bit more hit-or-miss for me. I loved everything about the ridiculously wannabe-bro Jared (Skyler Gisondo), yet the unstable socialite Gigi (Billie Lourde) never really clicked into gear for me.
The best scenes, though, are undeniably the ones between its two central characters. Their friendship — and the honesty with which it is written — is what really makes Booksmart soar. The intricacies, goofiness, and complications of that kind of friendship are all perfectly on display. And set over the course of one night and told within a 90-minute film, no less. Whether or not you’re a woman and whether or not you’ve had that sort of ride-or-die friendship in your life, it’s a rare, special pleasure to watch it play out on screen.