Amongst the many things to love about Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, perhaps of the best things about Booksmart is how genuinely it captures the high school experience in terms of what it means to be a teen on the brink of college or a student today in 2019. What Wilde, as well as screenwriters Emily Halpern, Susanna Fogel, Katerine Silberman, and Sarah Haskins, have accomplished is something that feels uniquely authentic to our current generation where the pressure to excel feels almost suffocating to a point. And while the technology and the generational references may shift and age over time, since this is definitely a film made for this moment, the core of Booksmart and the masterful way in which it balances comedy with heart and thematic purpose, while exploring the gen-z life, easily places it amongst the best coming-of-age comedies out there. Not just for today but any year.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends tied at the hip, who have spent their entire high school career staying in and studying, refusing to get bogged down by parties and other high school nonsense, to get into the best colleges. They’re the type of studious individuals who never really felt like they were missing out until they were confronted with the prospect. So, on the last day of school, when they discover everyone else including the notorious partiers have also gotten into those same top tier schools, they panic. This especially freaks out Molly, who now really doesn’t want to graduate high school without ever experiencing a party.
Realizing this is their last chance, they embark on a wild evening in their attempt to get to a house party hosted by the school’s popular guy Nick. Deciding to go to the party though is the easy part. What’s difficult for them is getting there, and along the way they face obstacles in a series of genuinely entertaining moments that serve as more than slapstick humor, but instead moves them along in their journey and causes them to open up themselves in ways they haven’t before. Meanwhile, amongst all of this, they are also dealing with crushes and Amy’s impending trip to Botswana that will really separate them for the first time.
So often in party films and high school comedies, the protagonist(s) are caricatures of the very stereotypes they inhabit for the purpose of laughs, but what Booksmart so aptly does from its inciting incident forward is subvert those stereotypes. In another film, Molly and Amy could have been the typical movie depiction of what a nerd girl is, but instead, they define it for themselves. What if in addition to feeling the pressure to succeed they also actually like school too? And what if they are overachievers who like school but also pretty naturally fit the party type as well? All of those things can be true at once, which the film works to convey, and are what Molly and Amy have to learn. But through all of it, they don’t have to compromise their core beliefs for a night of fun or participate in activities uncharacteristic to them in order to figure it out. They are still teenage do-gooders who are scared of drugs and make silly mistakes, despite how smart they are.
Wilde also does an excellent job at directing us in the point of view of Molly and Amy, learning as they learn, but even more powerful, really delving into the teenage perspective on life goals and crushes in a way that feels real to a teenage girl, rather than a teenage character contrived by an adult. There are two moments in the film which diverge a little from the plot to further show us this experience, which in another story might have felt gimmicky, but here just feels brilliant.
At its core, of course, Booksmart is about friendship and female empowerment, but not necessarily in a textbook girl power sort of way. Molly and Amy are feminists who love Michelle Obama and RBG and Malala, but they don’t just say Wikipedia facts and references about them to prove this. We can see how they idolize them through the way in which it organically fits into their lives, their actions, what they say and who they strive to be. And even then, there is still room for them in the story to grow as feminists and experience new revelations about what it means to truly support other women. Their close bond with each other, however, is the highlight of the film since it is a deep and genuinely moving depiction of female friendship that I wish was more often portrayed on screen.
Booksmart is a true delight, wonderfully directed with great performances and a solid script. Olivia Wilde’s work here will leave you eagerly anticipating what she does next.