A few weeks ago, Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade got a rather limited airing in the UK, arriving just 24 hours after the juggernaut of Avengers: Endgame whirred into life. That film was a perfect depiction of what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl – or so I imagine; it’s not my area of expertise – in the era of being Very Online. Coming in the immediate wake of that movie is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, which takes the same authenticity and extends it to the final days of high school, featuring teens on the cusp of college and the beginning of the rest of their lives.
At first glance, valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and her permanently nervous best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are standard examples of the academic over-achiever archetype. They’ve worked their arses off to get into their colleges of choice and Molly, in particular, is obsessed with her administrative role as part of student government. She even corrects the grammar of toilet cubicle graffiti.
However, these archetypes have been given a rather more modern flavour. Amy is openly gay and both girls wear their feminist politics on their sleeves. Molly has pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her bedroom, while Amy’s car is emblazoned with bumper stickers declaring that “catcalling is harassment” and, in a perhaps more stereotypically geeky flourish, “I like big books and I cannot lie”.
But this is where the film’s premise takes a delicious left turn. It’s essentially a world in which everything that the cast of Glee sung about in ‘Loser Like Me’ doesn’t come true. Molly and Amy somewhat arrogantly believe their rule-abiding lives have led them to their academic success, while others have partied, but floundered. They soon realise, however, that their hedonistic classmates have also secured places at the Harvards, Yales and Stanfords of the world. This causes a crisis in Molly, who decides she and Amy must go to an end of high school house party that night. If everyone else can do both, they can too, right?
One of the joys of Booksmart is its understanding of high school movie clichés. It knows when to reinvent the wheel and when to wrap its arms around genre tropes in a loving embrace. The structure is essentially Superbad, as the two girls move through a series of episodic segments en route to the party that is their goal. The comic energy is kept kinetic and fizzy, helped by Feldstein’s dynamism and Dever’s wonderfully relatable ‘straight man’ turn.
These are characters we recognise and characters we can’t help falling for. Romantic entanglements, or the lack thereof, do play a part in the storyline, but the central romance in the story is definitely the entirely platonic friendship between the two girls. It’s this friendship that forms the backbone of the plot, and it’s in this connection that most of the twists and turns of the story play out.
Much like the film around them – in a rare example of four different screenwriters producing something tight and coherent – Dever and Feldstein know when to crank up the comedic weirdness and when to play it low-key and believable. Their performances are effervescent, but also real, and it’s a testament to Wilde’s direction that she allows the performers to shine in amongst the occasionally surreal set pieces – watch out for a hilarious stop-motion interlude and a pitch-black serial killer gag.
It’s the honesty of Booksmart that so often sticks out. There’s a euphoric karaoke scene to Alanis Morissette’s ‘You Oughta Know’ that perfectly captures the growing confidence of a young person finding themselves as they release some of the shackles of their awkwardness, while a bathroom sex scene is thoroughly real in its utterly excruciating clumsiness. Everyone in this movie, from the most grounded character to the most heightened, has multiple, often contradictory, facets to their personality, with stereotypes broken down into their constituent atoms of prejudice.
There’s a lot of talk currently about the portrayal of women in film, and Booksmart is an oasis in an industry still dominated by men. It’s a female-led comedy, directed by a woman and with four female writers that absolutely smashes the Bechdel Test. But more than that, it’s an authentic portrayal of a female friendship that knows when to dial up the silliness, and when to spotlight its reality in pursuit of a charming, funny and most importantly fresh take on the high school comedy. It’s almost certainly a teen classic in the making.
Dir: Olivia Wilde
Scr: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Prd: Megan Ellison, Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfield, Jessica Elbaum, Katie Silberman
DOP: Jason McCormick
Music: Dan the Automator
Run time: 105 mins