- Directed by: Olivia Wilde
- Written by: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman
- Starring: Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein
- Classification: R; 102 minutes
How many feminist comedy writers does it take to make one generation-defining teen movie? In Booksmart’s case: four. Written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, and directed in a stunning debut by actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is the kind of feel-good teen movie young women plan their sleepovers around.
Although its “nerdy misfit high-schoolers seek darkness and transformation at an epic party the night before graduation” premise is a time-tested formula, seen in every era from American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused to Can’t Hardly Wait to Superbad, Wilde’s film feels totally original and new. While watching it, I couldn’t help but feel jealous of all the young girls who have this movie to help them get through high school when I only had She’s All That.
Wilde’s smart directing choices and the bravery of her two fearless leads transform a series of comic set-pieces, usually seen in fare such as American Pie, into iconic character moments. The two heroines of Booksmart spend their movie secretly watching porn in the back of a Lyft driven by their high-school principal, having their parents kiss the face of the childhood panda they use as a masturbation aid, while also name-checking Susan B. Anthony and Malala Yousafzai. In short, they contain multitudes, as the film privileges their hearts and minds, delving deep into their contradictions and complexities in a way the makers of Porky’s never dared with their characters.
Best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, who broke out in Short Term 12) and Molly (Ladybird’s Beanie Feldstein) describe themselves as “A-plus people.” They’ve spent their high school cramming for the SATs and planning for the successful futures that surely await them after graduation. Nearly always together, while clad in matching berets and jumpsuits, they’re an iconic, dorky feminist duo on par with Romy and Michelle and Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana. But just like Laurel and Hardy, as well as Cera and Hill, one demands dominance while the other lets them (secretly, resentfully) lead. Molly is the alpha: a high-school president en route to Yale University who treats her fellow classmates with Hillary Clinton’s level of composure and disdain. When she finds out that the most popular and depraved people in her class also got into fancy Ivy League schools, it blows a fuse in her carefully calibrated brain. In all her overachieving, why did Molly never consider sex or drugs?
This seismic revelation urges her to convince her best friend Amy to crash an epic high-school party that promises the debauchery they’ve never had. But more fearful, passive Amy isn’t so sure. Although she’s been an out lesbian since Grade 10, she’s too much of a perfectionist to fail at sex and is nursing a crush on a hot skateboarder. Molly insists that the party will be the perfect opportunity for her to make her move before she leaves to volunteer in Botswana. All they have to do now is track down the party’s address.
The two women journey through several strange and outlandish comic worlds (the set-pieces Wilde dreams up include a pathetic party thrown on a boat by a rich, unpopular student that feels like the world’s saddest bar mitzvah and Sleep No More-esque murder-mystery soirée thrown by ridiculous drama students who nearly steal the scene) before they finally reach their destination and confront their biggest fear, which is, of course, losing each other.
Sure, Booksmart’s narrative structure is as well worn as that pair of jeans those girls all lend each other in The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, but Wilde’s deep love for her characters and her tremendous sense of fun enlivens every single frame. Just like her trail-blazing predecessor Greta Gerwig, she commands charismatic and deeply specific performances out of everyone, especially Denver and Feldstein, who are both pure magic. The biggest treat, though, is Billie Lourd, daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, who plays a mysterious party girl named Gigi, who likes to jump off boats and consumes drug-laced strawberries like they’re an Edible Arrangement.
Smarter still, Booksmart has the audacity to make our heroines the butt of their own joke, revealing, with empathy and tenderness, a sexually repressed high-school overachiever’s insecurities and entitlement. With Fast Times at Ridgemont High-level casting (as a result of casting director Allison Jones, responsible for Ladybird and Freaks and Geeks) and Wilde’s keen cinematic eye – which favours close-ups, neon music-video lighting, long takes shot on a Steadicam that feel The Graduate-level – Wilde has created the definitive teen comedy for whip-smart feminists.
Booksmart is a love letter for any young woman who has ever stayed home on a Friday night to watch a Ken Burns documentary. It’s most likely to succeed as the best comedy of the year.
Booksmart opens May 24
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