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Review: Booksmart

May 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

A lot of actors have successfully made the jump to directing over the past few years. In no short order, it’s a list that includes Jordan Peele (Get Out), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, her solo debut), Jonah Hill (Mid90s), and Bradley Cooper (A Star is Born).

Now we can add Olivia Wilde to that list with her first feature Booksmart. The actress has delivered a winning directorial debut with this progressive high school comedy, crafting a film that pays tribute to the countless teen party movies that came before it while also putting a new spin on the formula.

The film follows Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), two best friends who are set to graduate high school, having spent the past four years studying hard and keeping their grades up in order to get into good universities, and sacrificing their social lives in the process.

But when they discover that the “cool kids” who partied their ways through high school also got in to good universities, Molly and Amy become determined to get into a party and spend the night before graduation catching up on what they missed. They engage in the usual shenanigans and debauchery along the way, over a night that ultimately tests the limits of their friendship, with Amy planning on leaving to help women in Africa just after graduation.

The actual beats of the plot are generally predictable and follow the path laid out by many a teen comedy before it, including last decade’s modern classic Superbad. But Wilde finds ways to make the material feel mostly fresh, despite a familiar formula. The screenplay credited to the four writers Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman – which originates from an unproduced script by Halpern and Haskins that appeared on the Black List in 2009 and has spent a decade waiting to get made, with Silberman eventually taking over to polish it up – is authentic in the way that it probes the intricacies of female friendship.

The film mainly works thanks to the chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, who believably portray the friendship between their characters in a way that feels very natural and real. Feldstein, who burst onto the scene with her memorable supporting role in Lady Bird, delivers a breakout performance here that reaffirms her status as a natural comic talent. She portrays Molly as a ball of energy who is often the one dragging her friend into things. Dever, who has been on my radar as one to watch since her stellar work in Short Term 12 and also really impressed in films like Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children and Lynn Shelton’s Outside In, delivers another very fine performance here as the shyer Amy, who pines after a skater girl (Victoria Ruesgo).

One of the most commendable aspects of Booksmart is that the film handles its queer subject matter in a really great way. This isn’t a coming out story for Amy, she just happens to be attracted to girls. The film strives to be diverse and inclusive with its wide array of supporting characters, trying hard not to reduce any of them to one trait, as some teen comedies are apt to do. Molly and Amy actually come to realize as the film goes on that their stereotyped perceptions of the other students are often wrong, and that the majority of people have more layers to them than what’s on the surface. This includes Jared (Skyler Gisondo), a rich kid who acts cool and tries to buy affection from other kids, but is also a lot more sensitive than his fake Jersey Shore persona would suggest.

Wilde does an excellent job of directing her actors, but she has also crafted a film that looks stylish, proving that she has a strong visual eye behind the camera. The cinematography by Jason McCormick has a pleasing filmic look to it that feels like an homage to the teen movies of the 1970s and ’80s. Editor Jamie Gross, who also cut last year’s unexpectedly solid comedy Game Night, keeps the film moving at a quick pace. The musical score by Dan the Automator also helps keep the energy levels pumped up.

The film works as a teen comedy that is at times laugh out loud funny, a riotous party movie, as well as a bittersweet look at friendship that is hip to the times with its progressive ideals. It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of Booksmart becoming somewhat of a touchstone film for this generation of teenagers, who will hopefully seek it out.

Booksmart is now playing in select theatres across Canada.

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