Sat. Sep 19th, 2020

Review: ‘Booksmart’ is one of the year’s best films

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (Annapurna Pictures)

Just when you think you didn’t need another ‘last night of high school before graduation’ movie, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart comes along and bursts through as one the best, funniest and most heartwarming of them ever made.

One of the things Booksmart does so meticulously well is that it mine bits of pieces of 80s and 90s teen movie nostalgia – The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused and Can’t Hardly Wait are in its DNA – without feeling reductive or overly referential. The script, by Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins  (TV’s Good Girls, Trophy Wife) and Katie Silberman (Set It Up, Isn’t It Romantic), deviates from nearly all of its predecessors by giving us a life-long relationship between two ride-or-die female friends that is a treasure trove of honesty both brutal and hilarious at equal turns.

From the get go, academic overachievers Amy (a touching and funny Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (a never better Beanie Feldstein) give us an instant chemistry that is so believable you’re hooked from the beginning. Molly listens to inspirational motivations (“Good morning, winner”) while posters of Obama and RBG look upon her. When she picks up Amy for school in old Volvo with an Elizabeth Warren 2020 bumper sticker, the two break into an impromptu robot dance party that feels like they’ve done every day since junior high. They hit school but there’s an arrogance to their over-achievement. “Fuck them in their fucking faces,” Molly says. They’re like less maniacal Tracy Flicks but when they realize that they’ve sacrificed any fun during high school to nail their college goals (unlike their peers who have managed to balance both), it becomes a new mission: get to the biggest party of the year and show their classmates, and themselves, they can slay a good time as well as they can slay their grades.

Amy is a fiercely feminist creation and a queer girl with a crush on a skater girl in school named Ryan (played with perfect aloofness by Victoria Ruesga). In Wilde’s hands, Amy’s sexuality isn’t a lesson for the audience and it’s not a coming out story. She has a crush. Like anyone, everyone in high school does and in Dever’s expert hands, Amy’s awkwardness is so universally relatable that makes her yearning universal. All while never losing the fact that her sexuality is a substantial part of who she is. Molly, alongside her aspirations to be a Supreme Court judge (and a clear path on how to get there) still falls prey to something so many of us have – a crush on someone we feel is unattainable to us. In her case, it’s jock superstar Nick (a terrific Mason Gooding).

Thus begins an adventure that finds the girls hitching an Uber ride with their principal (Jason Sudeikis), invited to a lonely yacht party by the school’s richest loser Jared (a truly wonderful Skyler Gisondo, this kid is a comic genius), rerouted to the wrong house party with the school’s theater queen George (super hilarious Noah Galvin) and Gigi, the trippy, dippy Paris Hilton-esque Billie Lourd, who keeps popping up throughout the film as a defacto spirit guide for the girls. We even get super fun cameos by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s parents, who are dead set on thinking that Amy and Molly are lovers, something Molly leans in on to get Amy out of the house at one point.

The script takes great lengths to provide the film, not with easy villains as most teen films like this do, but to let the girls’ anxieties and needs be the catalyst for personal change. I especially liked how Wilde incorporates the film’s fantasy elements, especially in the house party sequence, including a drug-induced stop-motion sequence that attains a high camp value of its own. Think of the tonal left turns of Romy and Michele’s High School reunion but with a bit more nuanced polish.

Booksmart was originally optioned in 2009, when patriarchy of film executives and money men told us that people don’t see female-fronted films. With the success of films like Wonder Woman, Lady Bird and Captain Marvel, they can be joined by a new pair of teen superheroes in Amy and Molly to disrupt the system and fuck them in their fucking faces.

Annapurna Pictures will begin Booksmart early screenings today and then take it wide on May 24th.

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