Booksmart balances the new and familiar in high school movies
Olivia Wilde’s debut feature film Booksmart is being lauded as a refreshing take on the well-loved and heavily trafficked genre of high-school comedy. And while stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever bring a unique chemistry to the center of Booksmart, it’s the film’s ancillary characters (including a delightfully quirky Billie Lourd), that are at times the most interesting and crazy to watch. Even more than other films of its ilk, Booksmart’s scholastic world resides in a fantastical “safe-zone” where our titular booksmart gals can explore other extracurricular activities with little fear of consequences, in the ultimate version of audience wish fulfillment.
The plot of Booksmart is similar to that of Superbad, where best friends Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) realize on the eve of graduation that they have squandered their time in high school on the wrong kind of fun, and to make up for lost time, they cram four years of debauchery into one night. The film hits almost all of the familiar beats (right down to an ill-timed vomiting) in Superbad, except instead of Booksmart being wholly about the changing friendship between Amy and Molly, it swings into Mean Girls territory, having Amy and Molly interact with their classmates, and realize that aside from missing out on parties, they also spent much of their high school days being judgmental snobs. Not only does the film have the characters reckon with that side of themselves but it gives the other characters more dimension. Booksmart doesn’t bother with cliques really, and while that might seem utopian, it’s all part of the otherworldly playground this film creates for its leads. By removing most labels, Amy and Molly can interact with the class “rich kid”, the class “stoners”, the class “slut”, and the class “basket case” (all of whom are Ivy-League bound), with no need for introductions or explanations as to why. The potential for all these people to be friendly with each other was inherent from the beginning. It’s a more contemporary way to approach the high-school hierarchy by completely dismantling it and it works wonders for Amy and Molly’s journey.
Unlike Superbad, Booksmart needs to acknowledge the dangers faced by young women when they are out and about in the world, especially at night. Obviously Amy and Molly are priviledged, and in many ways, their confidence in their own intelligence betrays how vulnerable they really are. But by creating a world in this film that doesn’t quite (in my opinion) resemble reality, Amy and Molly can carjack a delivery man, and instead of him actually dumping their lifeless bodies in a remote ditch somewhere, he just lectures them of the stupidity of their plan. They can have the thrill of acting dumb without any of the consequences. Same goes when they interact with the young men in their class at these parties. Drugs and booze are flowing, but no one’s out to harm anyone. Even the assholes aren’t into making anyone uncomfortable. Without any threats, Amy and Molly are truly free to explore their impulses.
The performances of the cast are really where this film shines. I already mentioned the great addition of more nuanced side-characters, with Billie Lourd as the crazy Gigi leading the charge. Like a loony fairy godmother, she pops up randomly, and implausibly, throughout the night, which only adds to the fantastical nature of this universe. The chemistry of Dever and Feldstein is also palpable, and it’s clear the two created their own secret language that carries them throughout the film. I can only see both of these actresses’ comedic chops improving with experience.
Booksmart manages to toe the line between familiarity and originality by placing those genre-specific beats in a weird little alternate world where knowledge is gained, and nothing is lost.
Booksmart opens in Philly theaters today.