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Non-Review Review: Booksmart

Booksmart has charm to burn.

Olivia Wilde’s feature length directorial debut is built from a familiar high school coming-of-age template. It is the story of two kids who just want to party before graduation and before heading their separate ways. There are any number of films built outward from that premise, or even core components of that premise. Booksmart is canny enough to understand the genre in which it is working. Indeed, the casting of Beanie Feldstein seems designed to directing invoke two key touchstones; Feldstein’s most notable role to date remains her supporting role in Lady Bird, and her brother Jonah Hill launched his career (in part) off the success of Superbad.

Partying is such sweet sorrow.

As with any movie in a familiar genre, the success Booksmart hinges on the execution more than the concept. There are dozens of films riffing on similar ideas, so Booksmart needs to distinguish itself in how it approaches the material in question. The film elevates this somewhat stock premise through the use of a charming cast and surprising emotional earnestness. It helps that the comedy driving the film is both very well-observed on its own terms and tends towards the affectionate rather than the mean-spirited. There’s an affectionate humanism in Booksmart, and the recurring suggestion that characters are more than just the roles that they play in the highly performative environment of high school.

However, it is the two leads that truly elevate Booksmart, working with a sharp script and confident direction to create an engaging and endearing portrait of teenage insecurities.

Hold on!

The script for Booksmart is well constructed, by a collection of emerging and established comedy writers. Indeed, the pedigree of the writing team suggests a little of the flavours thrown into the mix; Katie Silberman who wrote Set It Up, Susanna Fogel who wrote The Spy Who Dumped Me, and the writing team of Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins who have worked on shows Black-ish and Good Girls. The writers completely understand the rhythms and structures of these kinds of stories, the beats that the film has to hit. As such, Booksmart flows neatly from one set piece to another, a series of loosely-connected comedic premises built around the loose narrative conceit of Molly and Amy trying to get to the school’s biggest pre-graduation party.

Again, the template is familiar. There are plenty of films about teens looking to party; even beyond Superbad, there are films like Blockers, Bad NeighboursProject X. There are lots of films about high school students preparing to transition to the demands of adult life; even beyond Lady Bird, there are films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Grease, American Pie, Say Anything. Similarly, the “characters have episodic adventures on a wild night out” template is a reliable stock comedy plot; The Night Before, After Hours, Go. As such, a lot of the core ingredients of Booksmart are recognisable and familiar. The key is in how these elements are assembled.

Grad-ed on a curve.

Wilde’s direction does a lot of work in smoothing the flow from one sequence to the next. Both confident and comfortable, Booksmart is one of the most impressive directorial debuts from an actor in quite sometime. There is none of the awkward insecurity that tends to accompany actors transitioning into direction. Wilde seems entirely at ease within the framework of the genre picture. There is no awkward invocation of stereotypical indie sensibility or clumsy aping of an established director’s style, instead a complete understanding the genre in which she is working and the perspective from which she is coming. As a result, Booksmart has little of the sort of awkward showboating that tends to accompany such debut features. Instead, it has a sincere charm.

Wilde trusts her cast and the script enough to allow the bulk of the movie flow as expected. There is nothing radical here, simply efficient film making. Wilde makes sure that the film has everything that it needs to work, from dress montages to obligatory bumper shots to a catchy soundtrack drawn from a variety of sources. There’s even a playful-but-unobtrusive-self-awareness in this, including acknowledgement of the surreality of an older generation trying to attune itself to the soundtrack of modern teenagers. At one point, after a shockingly inappropriate broadcast of the soundtrack of hardcore pornography on a car speaker system, an oblivious adult innocently (and genuinely) inquires, “Is that Cardi B?”

Boatloads of fun.

Instead, Wilde focuses on her cast and in drawing out strong performances from her two leads in particular. Booksmart has the obligatory supporting performances from comedic veterans like Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams and Will Forte. However, most of the film rests on the shoulders of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever. Feldstein is great in the sort of obsessively focused lead character that the genre demands, a character driven by a singular fixation through a variety of increasingly heightened scenarios. However, Dever is the film’s real breakout as Molly’s more timid-but-loyal friend Amy. Between Brie Larson, Lakeith Stanfield and Destin Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 has proven itself to be quite the talent factory.

It is Feldstein and Dever who anchor the film, providing a firm emotional grounding for the story being told. Extended portions of Booksmart hinge on nothing more than Molly and Amy sharing the screen together. While there Amy’s parents get a couple of scenes, there is (quite intentionally) never any real sense of Molly even having parents or a support system outside of Amy. Booksmart has a surprising amount of emotional depth, and a lot of that comes from the film’s willingness to foreground the dynamic between the two leads; it is immediately clear not only who Molly and Amy are, but also why their relationship works in the way that it does. This dynamic carries the movie through the series of comedy misadventures that are required by the genre.

Skating by.

There’s a tenderness and warmth to Booksmart. As with other recent raunch comedies like Blockers or even Bad Neighbours 2, there’s a surprising sex-positivity flowing through Booksmart. One of the film’s most surprisingly sweet (and turning awkwardly hilarious) sequences focuses on a character’s first time in a bathroom at an out-of-control house party. Booksmart shrewdly avoids any undercurrent of moral panic or insecurity in its approach to these sorts of adventures. Indeed, one of the movie’s strong thematic throughlines is that it is entirely possible for teenagers to both succeed academically, manage their own futures, and enjoy the freedoms and opportunities of their teenage years.

Booksmart even makes a point to develop its secondary characters, adding a great deal of nuance to the archetypes that tend to populate teen films like this. Indeed, Molly’s panicked desire to cram years of partying into a single night comes from the realisation that she had severely underestimated the students around her, dismissing them as “cool kids” who had prioritised immediate pleasure over long-term goals. Repeatedly over the course of its runtime, Booksmart makes a point to reveal that its supporting cast is comprised of more than just high school archetypes; the cool jock can quote Harry Potter, the girl with the slut-shaming nickname “AAA” (because she offers “road side assistance”) is a good samaritan, the awkward loser dreams of a future where he’s understood.

Getting schooled.

Booksmart doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to. Instead, it casts an empathic eye over teenage life, anchored in two great central performances and a surprising reservoir of sincerity.

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