‘Booksmart’ is the funniest high school comedy since ‘Superbad’
Directed by: Oliva Wilde
Written by: Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, and Diana Silvers
“Booksmart” – Let’s get this out of the way right now: “Booksmart” is the funniest high school comedy to hit theatres since 2007’s “Superbad”, and Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut delivers pure, unadulterated joy for just about anyone who loves the R-rated, teenage-hijinks genre.
Wait, that Olivia Wilde who garnered supporting roles in somewhat-to-very forgettable flicks like “TRON: Legacy” (2010), “The Change Up” (2011), “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” (2013), and “Love the Coopers” (2015)?
Yes, and in a blink of an eye, or more accurately, after 102 minutes of two brainy best friends embarking on a journey to find a house party on the day before their graduation, Wilde’s film career has immediately shot into dizzying new heights in a surprising career-course correction. As far as this critic is concerned, if Hollywood studios are street-smart, they should line up in droves to hand this woman the keys to their next big screen comedy-vehicle.
In this movie, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are a couple of Los Angeles teens driving full speed ahead to graduation day and then onto Yale and Columbia, respectively. While Molly visualizes a path to become the youngest U.S. Supreme Court justice, Amy will live abroad to make tampons in Botswana over the summer before starting her college days. After fiercely studying in the evenings and throughout their weekends for years and years, always standing by one another’s side and forever-offering each other eternal support, these two young ladies achieved soaring scholastic success and close concrete camaraderie.
Wilde and writers Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins demonstrate the girls’ devoted friendship right away in the film’s second scene, when Amy picks up Molly for school. She gets out of the car and the two perform a bouncy, impromptu dance on the lawn of Molly’s apartment complex that instantly raises smiles and good feelings.
With Molly’s alpha-female, ultra-competitive and dismissive outlook towards her classmates, her coarse, honest and riotous discourse deserves the camera pointed at her at - just about - all times. Amy, meanwhile, is her steady, rigid, easily-embarrassed companion who acts as a sounding board for Molly’s unsupervised, brash viewpoints and an unwilling partner for her various schemes. Granted, prior to the events in the film, Molly’s various plans consisted of benign ideas, like acquiring college IDs to gain 24-hour access to university libraries. The point is that Molly fills this movie-universe with comic relief, and Amy pronounces a safe voice of reason that - naturally - her best friend relentlessly challenges.
During the film’s first act, Molly discovers a harsh, challenging truth in a co-ed on-campus bathroom, and realizes – in infinite buckets of splashing anxiety, trauma and regret - that Amy and she “are the girls who missed out.” They spent so many countless hours hyper-focused on reading, writing and arithmetic, that they skipped juvenile exuberance, and hence, Molly is determined to change their all-work-and-no-play destiny in the 11th hour and 59th minute of their high school careers. Molly’s goal, which is now – by default - Amy’s reluctant objective, is to find the most popular jock’s (Mason Gooding) party, and their timing is beyond critical, because graduation day is just a handful of hours away.
Hey, the plot might be thinner than Keira Knightley on a hunger strike and more familiar than Meryl Streep receiving her annual Oscar nomination, but “Booksmart” is an on-screen page-turner. Wilde, Silberman, Fogel, Halpern, and Haskins showcase a wide-open platform for Feldstein and Dever to dive into Molly’s and Amy’s uncouth antics as the girls attempt to travel from Geekdom to Acceptanceville…powered by their rooted, sisterly alliance.
While the leads, writers and the director are all women, be mindful that “Booksmart” is not exactly packaged as a mother/daughter bonding trip to the cineplex. Projecting the dynamics of millions and millions of families is surely impossible, but the odds are fairly high that Molly’s and Amy’s youthful, frank and frequent chit chat about their sexual curiosities will embarrass a parent-child moviegoing-pair. In addition, almost every adult character is a semi-clueless numbskull, so there’s that. No, don’t take your mom or dad to “Booksmart”, but any other combination of human-relationships – who, again, love the R-rated, teenage-hijinks genre - should be enthusiastically encouraged to catch this movie.
“Booksmart” not only acts like a souped-up paintball gun that splatters the audience with tangled encounters, amusing supporting characters, about one thousand one-liners, and a worthy destination for our heroines, but Molly’s and Amy’s conflicting mix of high-functioning brainpower and coming-of-age naivete is equally hilarious and endearing. Even though Molly’s and Amy’s trek towards a hopeful party-nirvana makes highly-memorable stops along the way, the girls’ friendship is paramount, and Wilde never loses sight of that emotional bond. A bond wrapped in sidesplitting comedic timing, fresh surprises and brilliant adolescent foolishness.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.