In some ways, Booksmart is a movie you’ve seen many, many times before.
You could call it a distaff Superbad, since it follows two teenage nerds on an epic night out, or a goofier Lady Bird, since it too centers on a close female friendship. (Also because both Booksmart and Lady Bird star Beanie Feldstein, younger sister of Superbad‘s Jonah Hill. It’s hard not to make those connections!)
It’s got some of Clueless‘ knack for world-building, and Eighth Grade‘s emotional honesty, and The Breakfast Club‘s poignancy. It’s laugh-out-loud funny like American Pie was, and agreeably loose like Dazed and Confused was.
But Olivia Wilde, in her feature directing debut, takes these familiar ingredients and turns them into something magically fresh again. Like the best of its genre, it feels both of the moment (we did not have graffiti advertising “all gender glory holes” back in my day, just graffiti advertising regular glory holes) and totally classic.
Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, BFFs so comfy together that the first time we see them, they’re dancing awkwardly on the sidewalk for no reason at all. They’re not ignored or bullied at school, but they’re definitely not cool – rather, they’re the girls who spent their weekends watching Ken Burns docs while reassuring themselves that they were choosing not to have richer social lives, damnit, because they cared about getting into good schools.
On the eve of graduation, they realize all those nights in were for naught. The other kids in their class are living proof that it was possible all along to have it all – to get great at handjobs and crush the SATs. It is time, Molly and Amy decide, to let themselves live a little: “I’m going to experience a seminal fun anecdote!” chirps Molly with what we understand is her usual overbearing determination.
Booksmart is the first major starring role for Feldstein, after scene-stealing turns in Lady Bird and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and she makes the absolute most of the opportunity, making every line a little bit funnier with her spirited delivery. Dever’s part is less flashy, but equally as essential; she makes Amy the sturdy emotional backbone of the story. Both of them feel fully formed in that half-cooked way of teenagers on the verge of realizing that the world is nothing like they expected.
Such care also extends to the supporting characters, their relationships to each other and to our heroines, and to the intricate rules that guide this entire social hierarchy.
What I can say, as a former honor-roll-making good girl myself, is that Booksmart has the specificity of lived experience.
There are spot-on jokes about theater kids and underpaid teachers and that one guy who went to Europe for a week and came back pronouncing it “Barthelona.” There are crushes and grudges to be sorted, and misunderstandings that must be corrected, and if it all seems like a bit too much to keep track of in a two-hour movie, that’s part of the wonder – the class of ’19 seems to live and breathe even when we’re not looking.
I can’t speak to what Wilde and her screenwriters (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman) were really like in high school, and I wouldn’t presume to guess. Nor can I confirm how well it reflects actual high school life in 2019. What I can say, as a former honor-roll-making good girl myself, is that eveything in Booksmart has the specificity of real lived experiences.
This world is heightened, sure – one of the standout characters is Billie Lourd as an eccentric party girl who might be a mermaid or a witch – but the emotions ring so true, it’s almost eerie. It’s how Booksmart turns a tryhard rich kid (a fantastic Skyler Gisondo) into one of the story’s most sympathetic characters, and how a flirty exchange about Hogwarts houses takes on the dimensions of a life-altering connection.
And that, along with Wilde’s confident sense of style, is what keeps Booksmart from ever spinning off its axis. No matter how many locations these girls visit, or how many weirdos they encounter, or how swiftly the film seems to move between laugh-out-loud humor and bittersweet sentiment.
The lessons that Booksmart imparts in the end are ultimately nothing you haven’t heard already: friends are important; people are complicated; don’t forget to have fun. That experience of feeling seen and understood, though, never seems to get old. Now we get to return the favor, and see Wilde, for the first time, as the fine feature director that she is.