Every new generation has its coming-of-age big screen favorite. The last few years alone have produced a slew of quality features: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), and the excellent Lady Bird (2017) to name but three. But once time has passed and home viewing is in order, you can bet none will be subject to download and replay in quite the same way as director Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart.
More in line with the tone of Dazed and Confused mixed with Clueless meets Superbad rather than the above-mentioned, Booksmart tells of what happened to two certain female high-schoolers on the eve of their graduation. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is valedictorian and student-body president while her best buddy and fellow high-achieving school swat Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is the activist of every worthy cause happening. She’s about to spend her summer overseas in Botswana helping the village locals make their own tampons. Between them, they’re not exactly on the nerdy genius level of a Sheldon Cooper, but they’re in that neighborhood.
It’s the last day of high-school and no one cares about anything. Not even Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis). “I hope I never see you again,” he announces over the school sound system. But Molly and Amy care. After all, graduation isn’t until tomorrow. The school year may almost be over, but surely there’s still a full day of classroom work to be done.
When Molly, whose years of constant study has paid off with acceptance into Yale, suddenly discovers that many of the school partiers have also been accepted into high-standard universities once summer is done (one even has a six-figure salaried job already waiting for him at Google) the girl is genuinely shocked. “But you guys don’t even care about school,” Molly exclaims. As Annabelle (Molly Gordon) tells Molly to her face, “We don’t just only care about school.”
Molly runs to Amy and insists that on this final night before cap and gown day they need to go out and partay! “We haven’t done anything,” Molly declares. “We haven’t broken any rules.” But Amy’s not so sold. “We were going to watch that Ken Burns thing,” she responds.
There are a few classroom parties they can attend. There’s the rich kid’s disco party complete with DJ and gift bags on his parent’s yacht, there’s the Murder Mystery party that the thesps from the drama club are holding, or there’s the rock ‘n roll hang-out-and-get-drunk free-for-all party at Nick’s place. His grandparents are stuck on a cruise ship that broke down somewhere in the middle of the ocean, so the place is free. Molly has already decided. They should go to Nick’s. If only they knew how to get there.
Booksmart is sharp. It doesn’t follow a similar pattern of rowdy R-rated teenage comedies, nor does it fall into the groove of predictability. Getting laid is not part of the plan, nor is anyone purposely looking to lose their virginity before high school is officially done. The bucket list for a wild and crazy night is different. Plus, there are no villains. The males are not objectifying the females, and there’s no gang of mean girls. Molly and Amy may well be on the outside from the majority of the students, and maybe they were not officially invited to Nick’s place to party, but that had nothing to do with them being unpopular – no one thought they would turn up. And ordinarily, everyone would be right.
Before it gets to the point where those caps will be finally tossed into the air and the students are ready to face a summer of either part-time jobs or just hanging out and having fun before college – the drama club has invited everyone to join them for a summer season of ‘Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot’ – the girls will ultimately get what they want, in one way or another. They’ll experience a night of becoming continually lost after dark while searching for Nick’s place, unintentionally taking drugs – the stop-action animated hallucinatory sequence where they see themselves as a couple of naked Barbie-like dolls is achingly funny – and they’ll become the center of attention at not one but all three parties. One of them may even land a potential prison sentence on their record.
With an ensemble of so many endearingly funny characters to encounter, you find yourself hoping the film returns to a favorite the moment it cuts away. The two leads, Feldstein and Phoenix native Dever, have what it takes to ground the center (Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s younger sister), plus there’s good support from the adults consisting of several SNL alumni. In addition to Sudeikis, there’s Will Forte who along with Lisa Kudrow play Amy’s parents, and Mike O’Brien as a suspect pizza delivery guy. Plus, Will Ferrell gets an Executive Producer credit. But the standouts are the teenagers.
Direct from Broadway’s titular role in Dear Evan Hansen is Noah Galvin as the luvvie drama student George who celebrates graduation eve with a murder mystery dinner party at his house. “Alan,” he tells scenery chewing fellow thespian Austin Crute, “You’re giving me a 10 when I want a 2.” But it’s the wealthy and dreamily drug-addled Gigi (Billie Lourd, daughter to Carrie Fisher), referred to as the school’s one percent who hilariously steals every moment, often by just turning up.
Director Wilde delivers Booksmart with the energy of a thriller that never lags. Sequences end with quick edits often making you wonder if what you’ve just heard was even funny, yet somehow the sharp cutaway acting as a visual punchline seems to make it so. Depending on your personal appreciation or tolerance of teenage humor, it’s possible the older you are, the less you’ll appreciate Booksmart’s audacious, often manic style. But for its target audience, the talented Wilde, whose film resume is long and accomplished but perhaps best remembered as Dr. Hadley on TV’s House, has unexpectedly hit the comic bullseye with her directorial debut. Seriously, who knew?
MPAA rating: R Length: 105 Minutes