[3.5 out of 4 stars]
Dir. Olivia Wilde; Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever
Some generations of high schoolers grew up watching Mean Girls (2004); others, 21 Jump Street (2012). Today, there is a new coming-of-age comedy in Booksmart (2019), a raunchy high school comedy that draws on similar, well-known films like Superbad (2007) while still managing to be fresh and unique. With photographs of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg adorning our protagonists’ walls, the film is a modern look at the strength and importance of female friendship.
In Booksmart, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are celebrating their last day of high school in Los Angeles. They’ve worked hard during the past four years, and it’s paid off: they’re valedictorian and salutatorian and will be heading to Columbia and Yale in the fall. Meanwhile, their classmates open lockers by slamming their heads into them and deface bathroom stalls with misspelled profanity. It therefore seems unbelievable when Molly learns that these kids are also attending Stanford and Yale or going straight to a six-figure coding job at Google. She realizes that she and Amy have wasted too much time studying when they could have been partying: “We messed up. We didn’t have to choose. They did both. We’re the only assholes who did one.” So, the pair decide to head to the biggest end-of-the-year party on the night before graduation to prove that they too are fun.
On display here are a variety of complicated female relationships, most prominently the best friendship between our two protagonists. Molly is the louder, more decisive one, while Amy is quieter. Though Amy came out two years ago, she hasn’t kissed a girl yet, a situation Molly hopes to remedy at the party. Together, the pair are a force to be reckoned with. They are wholeheartedly supportive of everything the other does; as they change outfits throughout the night, they immediately spend several minutes complimenting how beautiful the other looks. When Molly complains that a certain guy wouldn’t like her, Amy slaps her and exclaims “How dare you say that about my best friend!” Yet, Olivia Wilde does not craft clean, perfect characters here. They, especially Molly, look down on those she considers less than herself. She begins her day with a meditation-style podcast that intones “Look down at everyone who’s ever doubted you. Fuck those losers. Fuck them in their stupid fucking faces.” They are, like most high schoolers, judgemental, and they must learn to overcome their own biases about each other. As Molly says at one point, “We are not one dimensional.” She soon learns to say the same for her classmates, who, she discovers, she does not know at all. Each student gets more than a stock characterization, and Wilde showcases a wide variety of gender expressions and sexual orientations. Each character feels somewhat developed, rather than fulfilling the typical “jock” or “nerd” role.
The strength of these characters comes not only from a stellar screenplay and skilled directing but also from amazing acting on the part of our two stars, who have impeccable chemistry and comedic timing. Feldstein and Dever work very well together, playing off each other’s jokes and acting so natural around each other that it truly seems as if they have been friends for years. (They lived together as roommates in Los Angeles for 10 weeks before filming began). Another gift is the film’s script, which Wilde encouraged her cast to rewrite for their characters as they saw fit. The result is naturally-flowing and authentic-sounding high school language spoken by characters who appear completely at ease.
As cheesy as the film may sound, the effect is not overwhelming as you’re watching it. Booksmart is hilarious, packed full of laugh-out-loud one-liners, cringe-worthy scenes and intimate encounters with a stuffed panda bear. Each and every scene is maximized to be as awkward as possible. At one point, the girls accidentally broadcast porn on the radio of a Lyft being driven by their principal (Jason Sudeikis). The film is awkward, but not overbearingly or unbelievably so, and the comedy often comes off as endearing and authentic. As Amy has her first sexual experience, she struggles to untie the other girl’s sneakers. Mixed in with the typical raunchy high school humor are simpler jokes that also tell us something about our characters. While reading graffiti in a bathroom stall, Molly comes across “Your ugly” and sighs “Your ugly what? Honestly, how did you people pass the sixth grade?” It’s comedy that is relatable and honest.
Wilde has marked herself as a director to watch with a uniquely creative filmmaking style wherein more straightforward filmmaking sections are combined with imaginative scenes. For instance, at one point Molly and Amy, tripping on a hallucinogenic drug, appear as plastic Barbie dolls; Molly also imagines an ethereal dance with the guy she has a crush on. These inventive sections portray more deeply our characters’ emotions by representing visually what they are thinking and feeling. They also provide an alternate style of humor and a new way to elicit laughter from the audience.
Booksmart is much like Lady Bird (2017) in its progressive, complex depiction of close female friendship. And after witnessing Molly and Amy’s closeness for a few hours, the image of one leaving the other for the summer made me want to cry. But Booksmart goes even further with its comedy, adding a layer of humor from a distinctly female perspective. It’s refreshing and enlightening to experience a film starring two female leads, directed by a female director, and centered on female experiences. Here’s hoping Lady Bird and Booksmart are only the start of such films.