Usually the kids in teen comedies leave me feeling incredibly old, but Booksmart‘s Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) seem even more middle-aged than me.
They’re very clever, and very hard-working, and only have one day left at high school before graduation. That focus and drive means that even school Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis) wants them to lighten up, with their teacher Miss Fine (Jessica Williams) imploring them to have more fun.
Both girls are off to top universities: Molly to Yale, and Amy to Columbia. With a class rule that no-one can talk about the college they’re going to in case it upsets someone – presumably instigated by class president Molly – she and Amy don’t realise until the last day that their hard-partying classmates have also got into great colleges.
The two decide they “only have one night left to study and party at high school”.
Booksmart has elements of a traditional teenage comedy but combines them with frank honesty and a kinder sensibility. Molly, Amy and their graduating class are upfront about sex, sexuality, porn, and masturbatory toy pandas, as well as being pleasant and well-mannered. Amy being a lesbian is not an issue, and she’s been out for a while. She’s inexperienced though, and her problem is attracting the attention of her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), and finding out if that attraction is mutual.
It’s not a perfect world. Many of the issues that drive teenage insecurities still lurk, along with old misogynies, and the exclusion of classmates who just want to fit in. But mainly it very much reminded me of Blockers – both comedies feature groups of nice teens who want to have some fun and expand their boundaries on one big night, and both are very funny: by avoiding cheap, offensive laughs at characters’ expense, they highlight how unnecessary they are.
Booksmart is often hilarious: instant one liners, combined with comic personalities the two girls have honed opposite each for years, mean they fit together like two jigsaw pieces (though sometimes it feels as if everything funny they might have said over the term – sorry, semester! – has been squished into one day). Dever and Feldstein are an A+ double act. They look as if they’ve been real-life besties for years: perfectly timed jokes bouncing off each other, their characters entirely wrapped up in their friendship while still harbouring resentments that they can’t express.
Their night of partying feels like one of those dreams where you wonder if you’ll ever arrive at your destination, as they crash various other parties before tracking down the address of the *right* one: Nick’s unsupervised bash. Even he, the class vice president, has managed to combine study and epic partying over the preceding year. The evening involves several Lyfts, some accidental drug-taking, matchy-matchy outfits both deliberate and accidental, and hearts blooming and buffeted.
First-time director Olivia Wilde has done a fantastic job keeping everything on track, when the combination of a large ensemble cast and quirky humour could easily lead to things becoming a little messy. It barrels along with the smallest of dips in the middle – chasing round the city looking for parties – that actually then serves to provide a bounce into the fabulous final act.
I loved her little details: two fencers fight each other at the back of the playground shot, Amy’s bedroom door channelling Virginia Wolf with its A Room Of One’s Own sign.
Wilde is good at approaching conventional teen comedy tropes in new ways. During their drugs trip there’s an animated sequence where they believe themselves to be anatomically impressive plastic Barbie-type dolls, and work through the contradictions of their affirming, inclusive feminism while secretly wanting those very bodies. (I did find myself wondering what would happen if Molly Doll met up with Toy Story 4‘s Duke Caboom in a slightly dodgy spin-off.)
In its final third Booksmart goes to places I wasn’t expecting, and the tone darkens just as we’re waiting for our signposted happy endings; a first attempt at sex ends up in fumbling humiliation, at a stage of the movie when you’d expect fumbling giggles.
I did raise an eyebrow at how many of the graduating class apparently partied all year and still got into America’s top universities. (Alison Willmore has written about privilege in Booksmart, and its ignoring of class.)
Booksmart‘s scene-stealer is the hilarious Billie Lourd, who plays the kookily glamorous and very theatrical Gigi. She’s one of those kids who has no teenage tribal affiliations yet pops up everywhere, jumping from party to party all night, accepted wherever she goes. Gigi turns out to be the nicest of all – she’s loyal and great friends with class jerk Jared, harbours no malice to anyone, is completely over the top, and oh yes and did I mention her loyalty to class jerk Jared? Gigi holds herself above everything while always being ready to involve people in her escapades.
The graduating teens make up a fizzing ensemble cast, from Eduardo Franco who plays Theo, a ex-academic failure now off to Google (the proper noun, not the verb), to Austin Crute as Alan the flamboyant theatre darling, and Noah Galvin as the black polo-neck wearing, supercilious George.
All’s well that ends well, of course. And think of the high school anecdotes they now have!
Watch soundbite interviews with the cast and director Olivia Wilde.
Watch the Booksmart trailer now: