REVIEW – ‘Booksmart’ is refreshing, intelligent, and utterly hilarious

No doubt many audience members groan at the thought of another coming-of-age teen comedy filled with parties, sex, alcohol, and adolescent angst. The genre has been around for decades now, and, admittedly, most films of this nature aren’t worth your time or money. On its surface, Booksmart appears to be just another one of these fluffy timewasters. In reality, the film is anything but.

Refreshing, intelligent, and utterly hilarious, Booksmart fires on all cylinders with a stellar ensemble cast, a gifted director, a terrific screenplay, and outrageous moments to elicit rolling laughter from viewers of all ages. It’s a film loaded with a fiery wit that wisely shifts its protagonist focus to the often ignored teenage female, and the result is nothing short of spectacular.

Uber-intelligent best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are just one day away from their high school graduation and the chance to finally leave behind their schoolyard full of vapid morons. Brash and self-assured Molly is the Valedictorian and student body president, bound for Yale and her dream of becoming the youngest Supreme Court justice in history. Painfully reserved and awkwardly queer Amy plans to take a gap year from her acceptance to Columbia, instead choosing to volunteer in Botswana.

After shunning parties, drinking, and other obligatory teenage exploits, the pair have wisely dedicated their entire high school experience to their studies. Feeling entirely confident of her bright future, Molly breaks the school’s policy and gloats to several seemingly dopey classmates of her Yale admission. But, to her utter horror, she soon discovers that, despite their years of slacking off, her fellow graduates are also heading to Ivy League schools or impressive jobs.

It seems Molly foolishly assumed these kids simply don’t care about school, failing to realise they “just don’t only care about school.” With her mind spinning out of control at the realisation the gal pals denied themselves of frivolous teenage escapism for no reason, Molly is determined to spend their last night of high school making up for lost time and prove to her classmates she can let their hair down. And there’s no better place to do that than student body vice president Nick’s (Mason Gooding) end of school party.

Amy is far less convinced of Molly’s plan, seeing no need to prove anything to anyone, especially her school cohorts who’ve ignored her for four years. But Molly has an ace up her sleeve. Despite coming out years earlier, Amy has never kissed a girl, particularly her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), an effortlessly cool and sexually ambiguous skater girl who Amy has been ineptly flirting with all year. And Ryan will indeed be at Nick’s party. This is her last chance. There’s just one small hitch; the girls have no idea where the party is.

Offering an endless stream of comedic gold, Booksmart follows Molly and Amy’s desperate and error-filled journey to their unknown destination. Over the course of this madcap evening, the duo consistently ends up in the wrong location. First stop is a cruise ship bash thrown by overly eager Jared (Skyler Gisondo), as the rich kid hopelessly attempts to buy his classmates’ approval. Embarrassingly, the lone attendee at the party is Jared’s eccentric, hyperactive girlfriend Gigi (a downright sublime Billie Lourd). There’s also an unexpected detour to a murder mystery performance party of deliciously campy theatre queen George (Noah Galvin) where some earlier-ingested strawberries of Gigi’s pack a mighty punch.

Much like Superbad, American Pie or the supremely underrated Can’t Hardly Wait, the bulk of the narrative is concerned with capturing the carefree innocence of teenagers acting up and throwing caution to the wind in those final blissful moments before their lives change dramatically. It’s a portrait of the reckless days where everything in life still seems possible, even while a vast shift in the world you’ve known for years is barreling down on the horizon. Where Booksmart deftly differs from something like Superbad is its genuine and earnest depiction of the female teenage experience.

In recent years, the coming-of-age genre has been a goldmine of riches, with terrific films like Lady Bird, Eighth GradeBlockers and The Edge of Seventeen perfectly capturing what it means to be a female teen in the 21st century. Gifted with a screenplay written by four women (Katie SilbermanEmily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Susanna Fogel), Booksmart feels entirely genuine and something the young female market will connect with in ways this film critic couldn’t hope to. From the relative dialogue that’s precisely how young women communicate these days to the situational comedy Molly and Amy find themselves in, everything here sings with a tone of accuracy so many teen comedies simply fail to deliver.

While the film will undoubtedly be cringingly labelled “raunchy” or “risque,” the screenplay simply refuses to shy away from the blindingly obvious fact that young female friends talk openly and frankly about “taboo” topics like sex, masturbation, and sensuality in the midst of discussing how they’re going to rule the world someday or dorkily dancing like idiots on their front lawn. It’s a refreshingly frank look at young women of 2019 plus the evolution of gender identity and fluid sexuality in today’s high school halls. And lord knows cinema needs something like this right now.

Cemented by the impeccable chemistry and comedic timing of Feldstein and Dever, Molly and Amy create one of the most endearing and lovable duos to ever bless the teen comedy genre. The two actors are perfectly cast and genuinely feel as if they have been friends for life. Their banter is an absolute dream, whether they’re cheekily making fun of each other or doing their utmost to elevate their mood. Never is this displayed more perfectly than Molly playing on Amy’s parents’ (played by Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) misguided assumption the two teens are actually lovers, in a hilarious sequence where Feldstein absolutely shines.

Showing that comic talent runs in the family (her brother is two-time (!) Oscar nominee Jonah Hill), Feldstein continues to prove she’s one to watch, after dazzling in a scene-stealing supporting role in last year’s Lady Bird. Molly’s domineering personality ultimately masks deep anxiety about her future without Amy by her side, and Feldstein takes deft delight in unveiling the true heart behind the bold exterior.

Dever is equally impressive, in a captivating performance that’s even more anxiety-riddled with a character who is somehow both welcoming and shy. Amy’s sexuality is handled with the most utmost of care that can only come from a female filmmaker who understands the importance of this kind of cinematic representation. Booksmart wisely separates Molly and Amy at a certain point, allowing both performers to explore their characters as individuals, particularly Amy who begins to own and embrace her homosexuality and take ownership of her life.

As with any great comedy, Booksmart is dotted with a sublime array of supporting characters, each eliciting hearty laughter from an audience and offering a few important life lessons for the girls. Molly Gordon‘s mean girl Annabelle (nicknamed “Triple A” because of her promiscuous reputation) appears to rule the school with endless confidence but she’s ultimately far more complex than first appearances. Jessica Williams captures focus with Miss Fine, a late 20-something teacher aching to still be young and cool. And Jason Sudeikis is typically charming as the exacerbated principal who can’t wait for the school year to be done.

But the real highlight of Booksmart is the ever-reliable Lourd, who steals every scene she’s a part of and deserves to be amongst the awards season chatter later this year. In a hysterical rolling gag, the omnipresent Gigi continues to inexplicably appear at every single location our protagonists find themselves on their wild night, immediately fastening herself to new best friend Amy’s side. Lourde plays Gigi’s bizarre quirks and idiosyncrasies with remarkable aplomb, gifting her character with an almost supernatural quality that’s incredibly endearing. It still hurts to remember the loss of Carrie Fisher, but her daughter has inherited her mother’s breathless charm and winning star quality.

In her exceptional directorial debut, Olivia Wilde manages to keep the film moving at a cracking pace and excitable energy to craft a wonderfully entertaining romp. It’s one of those cinematic moments where the right director and the right project meet and the result is electric. Wilde plays with a number of bold stylistic choices that often push the boundaries of this well-worn genre to unexpected places, particularly an outlandish claymation animation sequence that’s ridiculously silly yet surprisingly empowering. Her style doesn’t always quite work effectively, but it’s a confident and assured introduction to this new female filmmaker. And lord knows cinema needs more of those right now too.

With its eternal message of the power of friendship and the torturous path we all faced when high school came to an end, Booksmart is not only incredibly funny, it’s deeply touching. Its timeless themes work for audiences of any age or gender. It’s a teen movie at heart, but not one made exclusively for teenagers. The film never seeks to demonise adolescents for their frivolous attitudes, rather working in total acceptance this is merely the blissful ignorance of youth. We were all like that once. Or you’re like this right now. Whatever the case, Booksmart is an absolute must-see.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Victoria Ruesga, Eduardo Franco, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte
Director: Olivia Wilde
Producers: Megan Ellison, Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Katie Silberman
Screenplay: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cinematography: Jason McCormick
Music: Dan the Automator
Production Design: Katie Byron
Editing: Jamie Gross
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: 8th July 2019 (Australia)