SXSW Review: ‘Booksmart’

Rating: 3.5/4

I don’t know about you guys, but I was a slacker in high school. I worked just hard enough to get into one of the top schools in the state, and summarily coasted from there. My situation doesn’t compute for the two best friends at the center of Booksmart — Molly and Amy: They’ve gotten every grade, skipped any sense of danger, forbidden themselves from parties or ever breaking a rule. Well, except for the fake College ID’s they use to sneak into the library.

But the friendship at the center of director Olivia Wilde‘s feature directorial debut Booksmart, is explored with the same frivolity and raucousness behind Superbad and Animal House, with the same tenderness and empathy for the misunderstood and the uncool as a John Hughes film, with a comparable modern soundtrack and score of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, to create an endearing break-up and coming-of-age film all rolled into one. In short, Olivia Wilde absolutely murders the material for an uproarious and audacious debut.

The films opens with Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), both dancing outside of Amy’s Volvo. The two have been close friends through high school (and before), but this is the last day before they graduate. Molly is on her way to Yale, Amy is going to Botswana. But they’re outsiders: teens who spent more time studying than partying — and now they’ve found that the slackers they looked down on are going to the same or better schools as them. What follows is a careening night of Molly and Amy trying to track down a party, THE PARTY, where they can set the record straight.

Wilde’s film, with the help of screenwriters Katie Silberman, Sarah Haskins, Emily Halpern, and Susanna Fogel, paints a collage of high school characters comparable to Superbad and Animal House. There’s the jock, the skater girl, the theater kids, the stoners, and the faintingly uncool. There’s also rich diversity. One lead is queer while the other is curvy and body positive, and each character is more than their trope describe.

Booksmart is also blisteringly funny: featuring jokes on drugs, masturbation, and sex — and audacious. Plenty have done high school comedies, but those feel safe compared to Wilde’s adventurous film. Because while Booksmart features needle drop after needle drop to bob your head along to, it also has an out of nowhere drug sequence where the characters turn into toy dolls (it’ll make sense to you when you see the film… or maybe not). For a first time feature director to put that sequence into their teen comedy, demonstrates Wilde’s unbridled potential.

The fantastic material is elevated by the wonderful acting performances at its center. Kaitlyn Dever, ironically, plays a great straight man to Beanie Feldstein’s frazzled second banana. The two also have an instant chemistry, nearly finishing one another’s lines while certainly wearing one another’s clothes. And while the rest of the supporting cast find their moments: Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Skyler Gisondo, Eduardo Franco, etc. — it’s Billie Lourd as Gigi who in one role has gone from Star Wars ensemble piece, to a standout performer. There’s not a moment when she’s not on screen, as the unstable spiritual druggy, where you’re not wondering when she’ll return.

Still, Booksmart isn’t perfect. Wilde’s film is too reliant on stock characters. While trying to create the milieu of a modern high school ecosystem may bring the odd cliche, the supporting characters are actually very retro. For instance, the two extravagant gay characters, a trope that was recently lampooned in Isn’t it Romantic, feature prominently here.

Booksmart also has lulls, as once the initial hilarity of the first 45 minutes wears off, the film is left grinding its wheels before Molly and Amy depart on their night out.

But while the film masquerades as two teens trying to find a party, and possibly love with their crushes — it’s truly a break-up movie. When Wilde does pull the rug out from under us, it’s ingeniously shot and well-edited with regards to sound. The result makes for an ending that feels so well earned and thrilling that you’ll want to call up your high school ex-best friend and beg them to go joy riding. Booksmart is a loving and endearing piece of filmmaking — wickedly funny and adventurous — and a jaw dropping directorial debut from Wilde.

An official selection of SXSW 2019

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