With Booksmart, actress Olivia Wilde makes an impressive directorial debut
Booksmart, the manic, raunchy new teen comedy directed by actress Olivia Wilde, could have easily contented itself with being a distaff version of Judd Apatow’s Superbad. All the ingredients are there: a lead pair of oddly compelling high school misfits; an assemblage of quirky archetypal supporting characters; and most important, the heightened emotions (and hormones) of adolescence.
But instead, director Wilde and an all-female screenwriting team (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman) have something a little more thoughtful and empowering on their minds. And though the lessons learned are perhaps a little obvious to anyone over the age of 18, it’s gratifying that any message at all resides somewhere in the flamboyant rites of passage.
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are long-time friends who have fiendishly devoted their high school careers to racking up accomplishments, both academic and extra-curricular. Now, on the eve of their graduation, they startlingly realize that they have neglected to have any fun along the way. They resolve to make up for that with an evening of exploration, both alcoholic and romantic. The rest of the film follows the two as they attempt to get to a blow-out party that will bring some adventurous balance to their focused teenage lives. In their pursuit, they run into a variety of classmates and learn some valuable lessons about the assumptions we all make based on others’ appearances and demeanor.
Booksmart succeeds largely on the spirited central characters of Molly and Amy, and the confident, lived-in performances of Feldstein and Dever. Amy and Molly are engaging individuals and a credible pairing of BFFs, and so the viewer is appropriately invested in the twists and turns of their night of discovery.
The two are surrounded by fellow students who fall into recognizable types: the spoiled rich kid, the flamboyant theater student, the too-eager-to-please doofus, the dreamy stoner, the class slut. The film quickly and deftly takes these stereotypes and one by one turns them on their heads. What’s winning about these amusing misfits is they are simultaneously over the top renditions of teen characters yet bracingly familiar figures from our own high school memories.
The story is aided immensely by the knowing performances of a number of comedic veterans in small, quirky, supporting adult roles: Jason Sudeikis (director Wilde’s fiancé) as an underachieving principal with an unexpected side hustle; Jessica Williams as the hip young teacher, and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s helicopter parents.
Wilde has directed Booksmart with a breezy, assured style that keeps the action moving and doesn’t allow filmgoers to focus too much on the screenplay’s machinations. In fact, both the director and the writers seem to have some fun twitting the requisite coincidences and turns of the teen comedy genre.
In the end, the lessons learned may be as obvious as high school social studies, but the path to get there is entertainingly diverting. With its warm, credible central performances and a sensitive understanding of the unique trials of young women, Booksmart deserves to be at the head of the class.
Coming in June: Dark Phoenix, the latest chapter in the X Men saga, June 7; Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in a TV workplace comedy, Late Night, June 7; Men in Black: International, the aliens-among-us series continues with a new cast that includes Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth (and Emma Thompson), June 14; and the much-anticipated Toy Story 4, June 21.
Booksmart: 4 out of 5 stars