Getting Straight A’s. Giving Zero F’s.
A Superbad (2007) for the contemporary Gen Z crowd, actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde couldn’t have hoped for a better debut. Instead of following the usual gross-out route that most teen party flicks generally traverse, Wilde and her screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018), and Katie Silberman, Set It Up (2018), spend their time crafting strong complex characters, creating a zany, riotous coming-of-age story and an ode to life-long friendships and the whole high school experience.
Mostly taking place during one crazy night, Booksmart centers on two studious types who crave success and are culturally and politically alert — a couple of feminist nerds that are depicted as intelligent people who still know how to have fun. We have overachiever Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and the lower-key Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) — BFFs that have spent the bulk of their schooldays with their heads stuck in their books, avoiding any type of social gathering (apart from sleepovers with one other and the odd political protest) in the hopes of attaining top grades for their futures. You see, Molly is prepping to go to Yale while Amy is taking a gap year, traveling to Botswana in South Africa to help the needy before continuing on with her studies; with Amy being the Salutatorian and Molly the Valedictorian and student-body president of their Californian school, they are, of course, seen as being pretentious stuck-ups by their peers.
On the day before their high school graduation, however, Molly discovers that their hallway enemies have achieved similar academic successes (getting into prestigious schools or impressive workplaces) after having spent most of their time goofing around in class. Shocked to learn that such bad behavior is being rewarded, Molly hatches a plan to crash a big house party that’s being held at jock Nick’s (Mason Gooding) suburban home, to make up for lost time, cajoling her best bud into her scheme by letting her know that Amy’s lesbian crush, skater-girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), will also be in attendance. Although Amy’s openly gay, she’s somewhat inexperienced with the whole thing (she hasn’t kissed a girl yet), and eventually agrees to go to the end-of-year shindig to try and ‘get with’ Ryan before their time together runs out. The problem is that neither of the girls knows Nick’s address. Thus the dynamic duo spends the night trying to locate the house in question so that they can experience an A+ party before their high school days are up.
Episodic in its structure, the witty script (penned by four women) sees the brainiacs visit a number of unusual gatherings, including an empty bash on an expensive yacht that’s being hosted by a lonely rich kid named Jared aka Jar-Bear (Skyler Gisondo) and his loopy, drugged-out girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd), and a murder mystery party that’s put together by theatre saps George (Noah Galvin) and his sassy partner Alan (Austin Crute) — here, we’re treated to an awesome hallucinogenic stop-motion trip that’s clearly homaging Todd Haynes’ 1988 experimental short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Naturally, there are lessons to be learned along the way, with Wilde showing affinity for her characters as Molly and Amy experience first love and heartbreak, realize that there’s more to their rival classmates than what’s on the surface, and find out (the hard way) that their ‘ride-or-die’ won’t be around forever — we also get the usual drinking, drug-taking, and vomiting that goes hand-in-hand with these types of teen joints.
Key to the success of the whole shebang is the cast. Leads Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12 (2013), and Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird (2017), extrude genuine chemistry together, and feel like real-life besties whose friendship existed long before the cameras started rolling and will continue after the final credits; they support one another, have their own lingo (one of their words is ‘Malala,’ a shutout to Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai), complement each other on their wardrobes, have in-jokes, and muck around just like real friends would.
Their school, LA’s Crockett High, is also populated by a bunch of believably diverse support players who make a lasting impression. Molly Gordon, Life of the Party (2018), is wonderful as a girl nicknamed Triple A due to her promiscuous reputation (a discussion where Molly and Triple A aka Annabelle bond over being stereotyped is terrific), while newcomer Mason Gooding does a great job in making the popular footballer feel like an actual person rather than just a beefy cardboard cutout. Noah Galvin, Assassination Nation (2018), absolutely nails it as George, a literal over-the-top drama queen who, in my opinion, provides the film’s biggest laughs. Equally notable is Skyler Gisondo, Vacation (2015), who’s endearing turn as an über-wealthy youngster who isn’t an absolute jerk, shows us that not everyone is as happy as they initially appear. Then there’s Billie Lourd, Scream Queens (2015-16), who steals the movie as wild-child Gigi, an eccentric, off-the-rails Fyrefest-type Millennial who pops up everywhere without any sort of explanation — sure, her character doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that’s why I loved her!
The grown-ups are just as memorable as the teens with Jason Sudeikis, Horrible Bosses (2011), leading the charge as Principal Brown, whom the girls have a sticky encounter with when he picks them up as a Lyft driver (where he works on the side). Jessica Williams, The Incredible Jessica James (2017), is solid as the ‘cool’ teacher Miss Fine, who (somehow) winds up getting together with graduating senior Theo (Eduardo Franco), a hippy kid who’s off to work for Google! Heck, even Michael O’Brien, Staten Island Summer (2015), leaves an mark as a weird pizza delivery guy. I just wish we saw more of Lisa Kudrow, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), and Will Forte, MacGruber (2010), who portray Amy’s well-meaning yet slightly awkward folks, Charmaine and Doug respectively.
The whole thing is capped off by the colorful, almost dream-like cinematography of Jason McCormick, Lemon (2017), while editor Jamie Gross, Game Night (2018), uses slow-mo to excellent effect, the whole thing possessing a kinda hip indie music video vibe, one you’re most likely to stumble across in the midst of a Saturday night jam. Additionally, the soundtrack is totally boppin,’ featuring tracks such as ‘Double Rum Cola’ by Fata Boom and ‘Nobody Speak’ by DJ Shadow feat. Run the Jewels.
A refreshingly hopeful portrait of youth, Booksmart is not only tremendously entertaining but also offers some sound advice to youngsters (well, everyone really), the film urging people to balance work and play, and reinforcing the age-old saying, ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ Sweet, smart and better than 2017’s acclaimed Lady Bird, I’d say that Booksmart is the best teen flick of this era, and will hopefully attain cult status somewhere along the line (it sadly failed to make any money in the US), as Booksmart is in a class all by itself.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie