There’s a whiff of topicality to the premise of Booksmart, given the mounting scandals around elite-college admissions of late. Olivia Wilde’s new comedy follows the high-school pals Amy (played by Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), who’ve stayed out of trouble for their entire academic career so that they could get into the best colleges. But when graduation week rolls around, Amy and Molly discover that all their hard-partying peers got into the same big-name institutions as them, so the girls resolve to have as much fun as they can before summer arrives. What better reason to cut loose than realizing the whole system is broken?
Booksmart, Wilde’s directorial debut, is firmly planted in the “one crazy night” subgenre of the teen-film canon. It owes a debt to generational classics such as American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, Can’t Hardly Wait, and Superbad—movies about high schoolers running wild as they edge up to adulthood and obsess over the specter of an uncertain future. A blazingly funny and energetic romp, Booksmart seems destined for instant cult status, retaining the adolescent anxieties of its forebears while updating its worldview for the weary ranks of Generation Z.
Wilde seems eager to dispense with many teen-comedy tropes about social castes, mean girls, and relentless superficiality. The hyper-connected cool kids of Booksmart are largely well meaning, if easily bored; in staying away from that scene, Amy and Molly haven’t made themselves unpopular so much as they’ve remained unknown. They resolve to fix that in a single night by bouncing from party to party in search of the crazy high-school stories they once assiduously avoided. What they encounter puts a strain on their own tight bond, the thing that’s kept them safe but in a bit of a bubble over the years.
For Booksmart to work, the chemistry between the more introverted Amy and the hyper-opinionated Molly needed to be palpable, and fortunately it is. Feldstein (who made such an impression in a supporting role in Lady Bird) plays Molly as that special kind of teenager cursed with believing that every decision she makes is the right one—she’s full of righteous energy no matter how low the stakes. Feldstein’s force of personality is balanced out by Dever, who’s a phenomenal scene partner, someone who can convey whatever her character is bottling up with a slight stammer or awkward glance. Dever has been an actor to watch since her recurring role on the dearly departed TV series Justified, but Booksmart should cement her reputation as one of the biggest young talents in Hollywood.
The film is credited to four screenwriters—the script bounced around Hollywood for years and was revised multiple times. As such, it has an episodic feel, jumping from tone to tone, location to location. Sometimes it’s anarchically funny or surreal; at other times it’s quieter and more heartfelt. Wilde doesn’t shy away from the dizzying feel of her story, smashing through moments of calm with a funny set piece or heated argument, and leaning on her bright ensemble. Standouts include Noah Galvin as an imperious theater student; Billie Lourd as a mysterious party girl; and best of all, Skyler Gisondo as a well-meaning rich kid, equal parts grating and pathetic, who tries to buy his classmates’ attention.
Nobody is an out-and-out villain. There are no menaces chasing our heroes around in Booksmart, no archrivals trying to sabotage Molly and Amy’s fun. Even the more intimidating cool kids, such as the supposed bully Hope (Diana Silvers), are given scenes that go beyond stereotype. The greatest challenge facing the film’s central pair isn’t their peers; it’s that they have to figure out how to let their relationship evolve outside of the confines of high school. Wilde is fundamentally telling a story about young people trying to survive and enjoy life while the outside world, and all its terrifying realities, draws ever closer.
Booksmart has a bracing sexual frankness, and the film is appreciably nonchalant about Amy’s status as an out lesbian, albeit one who’s still working up the courage to ask her crush out on a date. But the romantic drama is peripheral. The movie triumphs because of its emphasis on the intensity of teen friendship, all the power Molly and Amy have drawn from each other, and their anxieties about how life will go on after they part ways. Booksmart doesn’t have an answer for how they can best face the future together, even as the resolute Molly insists that there’s a solution for everything. The film is simply intent on capturing the energy of that special “us against the world” connection that can exist only in high school and unleashing it onto the screen.