Booksmart review – wild, warm high school comedy puts girls on top

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a funny, filthy, female-fronted competitor to Superbad that boasts its own distinctive style

During the first act of SXSW crowd-pleaser Booksmart there’s a fantastically humbling, game-changer of a moment for Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a smart if smug overachiever desperately tying up administrative loose ends on her last day of high school. She’s in a toilet cubicle, correcting the spelling of some graffiti when she overhears three of the cool kids dissecting and critiquing her try-hard personality, unaware she is listening in. Molly storms out and delivers a withering comeback, predicting a near future that will see her excelling at an Ivy League school while they struggle to enter the workforce.

In another film this would be a moment of triumph, a victimised bookworm standing up to mean-spirited bullies, but instead, we see Molly’s snobbish assumptions upended as her aggressors detail post-graduation plans just as impressive as hers. It’s a nasty shock to the system, a reveal that puts her entire perspective on school on its head, a realisation that in fact it was possible to both work hard and play hard, her teenage years now seeming like a wasteland of early nights and rejected party invites. The silver lining is that she didn’t spend this time alone, instead developing a co-dependent friendship with Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and with this new, earth-shaking knowledge, the pair agree to put their last night of school to good use, finally embracing the recklessness they’ve spent their lives trying to avoid.

At last year’s SXSW, critics heralded the Judd Apatow-produced Blockers as a rare, raunchy teen comedy from a female perspective but for me, the film’s insistence on prioritising the girls’ starrier parents, two of whom were male, sullied what could have felt like something unique. In Booksmart, the directorial debut of actor Olivia Wilde, there’s no such reversal, the two leads appearing in every scene, parents and male characters be damned. It shouldn’t feel this refreshing in 2019 to see two teenage girls talk about sex so freely, and awkwardly, but there’s a raw, untempered quality to the dialogue that feels quietly revolutionary. This is also reinforced by the film’s comfortability with Amy’s queerness, a rare mainstream portrayal of a young lesbian coming to terms with her burgeoning sexuality, as revelatory and as confusing as the journey faced by her straight peers, just as it should be portrayed.

The barebones of the plot conjure up inevitable comparisons to Superbad and there are sequences that will feel familiar to anyone well-versed in high school comedies, but Wilde manages to grace her film with a distinctive aura all of its own. For one, romance and sex are relatively low down on the list for the girls while friendship, feminism and the pursuit of fun are of more importance, turning them from archetypes into fully fleshed, and flawed, young women. Like many first-time film-makers, Wilde is often tempted by stylistic excess but unlike so many others, she avoids an overload of visual indulgence, instead casually peppering her film with memorable flourishes, carefully metered. In one particularly impressive scene, together with cinematographer Jason McCormick she shows an argument in one take, the camera gliding from left to right, with onlookers filming on their phones, an indelible way to convey a familiar scene.

The script, from Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, has a loose shagginess that might take us on a recognisable route, but it’s one with unexpected detours, a fun, freewheeling ride that is mostly on point. While there are big laughs, there are also some comedic extravagances that don’t work so well, such as a rather misjudged performance from Billie Lourd, but the pace is fast enough that the rocky parts become easy to forget. Feldstein, whose turn in Lady Bird deserved more credit, possesses an instant likability but also an ability to embrace her character’s spikier qualities. There’s an easy, hard-to-fake chemistry between her and an understated, soulful Dever, whose quietly naturalistic performance pegs her as a thrilling new talent, set to graduate from her previous, smaller roles into major stardom.

Booksmart is inclusive and progressive without feeling forced and announces Wilde, an actor who hasn’t always found her groove on screen, as a major director, one of the more impressive behind-the-camera transitions I have seen for a while. Her film reaches the audience-friendly highs of a studio comedy while retaining an indie sensibility, both in its visuals and its tone, and coupled with the script’s rooted awareness of the moment we’re now in, it feels fresh, a film that will be rewatched and quoted, held on a pedestal by those who understand its necessity.

  • Booksmart is released in the US on 24 May and in the UK on 27 May


Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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