Olivia Wilde’s debut is a gut-busting comedy that celebrates the power of female friendships.
“Nobody knows that we’re fun!” laments Molly (Beanie Feldstein), one of the two overachieving high school seniors at the center of Olivia Wilde‘s raucous, heartfelt debut Booksmart. “Nobody knows that we’re fun. We didn’t party because we wanted to focus on school and get into good colleges,” she continues; Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), her similarly academic bestie, responds that it worked – they’re both buttoned-up nerds who put their heads down and studied hard to get into great schools, sacrificing their social standing and any sense of fun to chase after the accomplishments of idols like Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But as Molly learns that their seemingly-ditzy classmates also got into Stanford and Harvard despite spending as much time partying as studying, she realizes they’ve gone about the whole school thing wrong. “We haven’t done anything! We haven’t broken any rules!” Thus sets off a Superbad-level evening of debauchery, mayhem, and petty crimes, as Molly and Amy cram an entire adolescence’s worth of teenage rebellion into a single night before graduation. And you know what? It’s pretty damn great.
One of the first things you notice about Booksmart is its incredible understanding of (and sympathy for) the concerns of its young characters. For a lot of dweeby kids growing up, the phrase “peaked in high school” was a nifty rejoinder for bullies who didn’t seem as into their studies, as a way of getting the last laugh. But what if those kids didn’t peak in high school? What if you did? What if academics and the haughty know-it-all nature of high-school Hermiones didn’t get you further than the kids who did take the time to have fun? It’s a hard lesson that Molly and Amy learn throughout the course of the film, and it interrogates their own friendship in more than one way.
And what a friendship it is, Feldstein and Dever making for one of the most charming on-screen double acts in quite a while. Feldstein carries that same exuberant, take-no-prisoners energy from Lady Bird (not to mention her recent stint on FX’s brilliant What We Do In the Shadows) and pours it into the Type-A monomania of Molly, making for the kind of person who can’t just let loose and party – she has to be the best at it, damnit. As a counterpoint, Dever’s Amy is beautifully droll and acerbic, her wallflower nature allowing her to really let loose once she embraces the chaos of the evening. Her character’s queerness is also embraced with little fanfare, her quest to woo the effortlessly-cool skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) a symphony of stammered insecurity.
One of the first things you notice about Booksmart is its incredible understanding of (and sympathy for) the concerns of its young characters.
But the real magic comes in their scenes together, Booksmart smartly taking the time to let its characters spend time with each other and mines humor from their own surprisingly complex relationship. While at first blush, Molly and Amy seem drawn together by their shared love of feminist icons and social justice, Booksmart‘s cavalcade of crazy situations brings out previously-unrealized cracks in their dynamic. The two of them, Molly especially, have some unresolved psychological wrinkles to work out — not the least of which is the blinders they have towards their less-studious classmates.
The screenplay (the product of four female screenwriters — Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman) is as whip-smart as its protagonists, affectionately raunchy without feeling nasty or nihilistic: jokes about humping stuffed animals and Bluetooth speakers accidentally blasting porn playing on their phones abound. Wilde, to her credit, keeps her focus squarely on her incredible ensemble, making time for some insightful pops of presentationalism to punctuate their evening. (Amy’s liberating swim during one classmate’s pool party feels transcendent in the same way Aidy Bryant’s did in Hulu’s beautiful Shrill.)
Between all the gags about botched carjackings and drug-trip sequences, there’s a deceptively sweet and layered story about the power of female friendship, and the challenges young women face even in these comparatively ‘woker’ times. When characters like Annabelle (Molly Gordon), nicknamed “Triple A” for her rumored predilection for riding with boys in cars, reveal themselves to be far more than our pair of Tracy Flicks assumed (“I’m incredible at handjobs, but I got a 1560 on the SATs,” she says), Booksmart asserts that even the most ardent young feminists can stereotype and shame other women for their lifestyles.
The movie isn’t without its problems – one can argue that the movie’s premise about college acceptability ignores some real structural barriers Molly and Amy have that their classmates might enjoy. But as a cunning, acerbic teens-night-out film co-starring Billie Lourd as a spaced-out 1%-er who pops up in nearly every stop on their journey like some kind of Coachella genie, it feels downright impossible not to love. It might be one of the best comedies of the year.