“Not only funny and confident, the film shows an understanding of its characters personalities and growth in ways that many of its contemporaries in the high school comedy can’t match up to.”
by Ken Bakely
At the core of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart is a clear sense of humanity and empathy. Not only funny and confident, the film shows an understanding of its characters personalities and growth in ways that many of its contemporaries in the high school comedy can’t match up to. It sounds reductive to say that the script – by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman – makes inroads by treating everyone onscreen as a genuine person, but from the moment we meet Yale-bound class valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and her equally achieving best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who is about to embark on a humanitarian mission in Botswana, we recognize the close-knit dynamics of their friendship as complicated, multidimensional, and deeply felt. The film introduces them the day before graduation, where their plans are set for the future. They sit, somewhat smugly, at the top of the academic ladder, putting down and dismissing everyone beneath them. But when they find out that even some of the stoners and party animals in their midst are just as bright as they are, with the impressive grades and Ivy League admissions to match, everything changes.
You see, the pair had sworn off any opportunity at a “traditional” social life, lest it interfere with their studies. They are stunned by the revelation that they didn’t have to. On the night before graduation, they decide to attend a wild party thrown by one of their classmates, where Amy has the extra incentive to pursue Ryan (Victoria Ruesega), her longtime crush, and where both friends seek to prove to their peers that they can have fun, too. The events they encounter in getting to the party, and those take place after they get there, make for a rollicking and entertaining ride, anchored by wonderful, lived-in chemistry between Feldstein and Dever. Their great collective and individual work could have carried even a less inspired movie, but in this case, they take good material and make it even better, extracting the best of the comedy and underlining the underlying character development.
Amy and Molly are two supremely well-constructed characters. They’re more than their individual traits or shortcomings, and while the script contains its share of goofy, throwaway, and even a few gross-out, gags, Wilde and her gifted cast always make sure that the main characters have their own complex arcs and journeys. Though the film sometimes demurs to give each eccentric character personality the same share of believability that Amy and Molly, or those closest to them, receive, the actors are so dynamic that they keep everything on the level. For that matter, just about everyone onscreen has their share of great moments; special mention must be given to Noah Galvin, as a perpetually self-serious drama kid, and Billie Lourd, as an enigmatic classmate who brings a delightfully strange energy to a character who always seems to be just around the corner from wherever the night takes the film’s two lead friends. Navigating the eventful night over which the story largely takes place may be chaotic for the protagonists, but it’s a joy to watch for us as viewers, and Booksmart takes care to never resort to the mean-spirited leering or undue reveling in awkwardness that other high school movies lean on.
That’s a big component of what sets it apart. So many high school films talk about the idea of realizing and respecting the nuances of other people and using that as a building block for their characters’ development, but Booksmart gets us a lot closer to realizing what that actually means for the movie itself to live that truth as well. That’s a truly fine achievement, and a stellar showcase for the artists involved. Wilde shows her future potential as a director. If her next effort is as roundly solid as this one, with clear signs of an individual signature and a perceptiveness to match, then a noteworthy and prolific filmmaking career could very well be in the cards. But let’s not think too far into the future when there is much to admire about what’s been done here. What a balancing act this film so often achieves: wittiness with silliness, kindness with bluntness. Many plates are balanced and spun in the air, and even when the brilliant shine of its best qualities isn’t always matched as consistently and evenly across the board as we might hope, it’s the power of the talent on both sides of the camera that makes it stand so far ahead.