Once in a while, a film comes along that reminds you why you love movies so much. And sometimes, it’s from where you least expect it – no franchise, no wealth of IP to draw from, no 22 films worth of worldbuilding. Sometimes, it’s the little guys that surprise you. Booksmart is one of them.
Booksmart takes place over only around 24 hours. It follows BFFs Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on their last day of high school. They’ve spent their entire time at school dedicated to getting excellent grades so they can get into the colleges of their dreams, looking down their noses at the popular party kids along the way.
But, when they find out those who have been engaging in exciting extra-curriculars have also passed with flying colours, Molly in particular is furious.
They decide that the night before graduation is the one on which they show to their classmates that they can be both smart and fun – the last night for them to grab the opportunity of saying they both partied and studied their way through high school. Strap in for one epic night of booze and bad behaviour as they try to make their way to the hottest party in town.
This is the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, and she is not shy about setting the scene and the tone – from the outset there’s snappy editing, a bombastic hiphop soundtrack and razor sharp one liners (thanks to Katie Silberman’s truly excellent script) that signify this movie is going to be a pacy, ridiculously enjoyable rollercoaster ride.
The feminism at the core of the movie is part of what makes it so refreshing. Of the two leads, Dever’s character is gay (but not burdened with a traumatic closeting or coming out we see so often elsewhere), their safe word when they need the other’s full support is Malala, they have an elongated ritual of emphatically complimenting (rather than competing with) each other, and the idea of being both smart and fun is extended effortlessly to the rest of the characters at the school. Stereotypes are continually sidestepped as the jocks and the pretty girls alike show Molly and Amy that, to their surprise, they do care about school – it’s just not all they care about.
An actor-turned-director can often incur groans and raised eyebrows, but similarly to Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird, Olivia Wilde has shown that there’s a certain integrity and clear rapport with her cast that female actors can bring to storytelling when finally given the chance to be behind the camera. Not only is her warmth as a director clear in the general sense of kindness and joy in the film, but her stylistic choices and cinematic eye are spot on. Amy and Molly’s faces are framed beautifully throughout, and the light flares and amber hues add a kind of nostalgia, whilst also making the film feel thoroughly modern in its visual style.
Feldstein and Dever’s chemistry is outstanding, and they show remarkable skill in comic timing, line delivery and dramatic moments. One long shot where their friendship wears thin is devastatingly truthful; an argument that any former (or current) teenage girl can likely remember from their own history.
There’s also a depth to the supporting cast which is what makes Booksmart feel like such an authentic reflection of a high school class – Billie Lourd is downright hilarious as the mystical, brilliant Gigi, Noah Galvin is laugh-out-loud as catty George, and Skyler Gisondo has just the right amount of bravado as rich kid loner Jared. There’s also scene stealing moments from Wilde’s partner Jason Sudeikis as the high school teacher, and Michael Patrick O’Brian as a somewhat strange pizza guy.
Whilst there’s barely time to catch your breath, there is some weaker segments – particularly as the night begins, and before they get to the main event of Nick’s party. There’s also a drug-induced dream sequence that you might have expected but hoped to avoid, which feels a little forced at first, but works hard to get you on board.
With only mere moments that lag, Booksmart is a high school teen movie for the ages. From five minutes in, you’ll be thinking about how often you’re going to come back to this one, in times where you need a pick-me-up or to restore a little faith in the power of friendship.
A perfectly formed package of emotion, entertainment and balls-to-the-wall euphoria, Booksmart is a timely yet timeless instant classic. It’s what going to the movies was made for.