The crash-into-a-brick-wall realization that jumpstarts Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart occurs where the juiciest gossip so often takes place in teen flicks: a high school bathroom. Class president and general good-doer Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is sitting in a toilet stall, spell-checking some of the magic marker graffiti around her when she overhears three of the cool kids tear apart her can-do, will-do personality. Molly storms out and gives them what for, forecasting a near future in which she’s excelling at any Ivy League school while these cruel, simpleminded bullies won’t be able to land a job.
In another movie, this would’ve been a moment of triumph – a fist-raising patronage to those students who do their time in and out of the classroom wholeheartedly and with complete dedication. But those are other movies. Here, Molly’s comeback is discredited, instead converted into a snobbish and ignorant series of assumptions as the partyers she assumed were near braindead from blunts and booze list out post-graduation plans just as, if not more, impressive than her own.
As the dastardly nicknamed “Triple A” (Molly Gordon) informs her, “we just don’t only care about school,” Molly’s way of being is suddenly and brutally upended. Is it possible to work hard and party hard? In a strange, but wonderful way, Booksmart similarly topples over any expectations we may’ve beset not only upon it – coming out of SXSW, it was simplified by many as “Superbad with girls” – but the teenage genre as a whole.
This is an advantageous and revolutionary glimpse at young life, one that’s centered around and made possible by the proudly receptive and diverse generations of our era. It’s strange how refreshing it feels watching young women talk so freely, if awkwardly, about sex, but that’s because the film emits an almost identical sense of welcoming as the teens its portraying. This is also enforced by how comfortable the film is discussing Molly’s best friend Amy’s (Kaitlyn Dever) homosexuality, a rare quality of mainstream cinema.
Broken down to its simplest form, the plot’s comparisons to Superbad aren’t totally unfair. The night before their high school graduation, Molly and the equally studious Amy decide to break loose and tap into the party scene for the first time. Along the way, there’s a fun-filled, but guest-empty yacht, an incredibly awkward Lyft ride, and one of the funniest drug trips I can remember in a movie.
Though fans of McLovin and other teen party comedies may find some of these sequences familiar, Wilde’s able to distinguish her project from the others. Instilling the philosophies of both girls deep into the film, Booksmart’s prioritizations of things like friendship and feminism over hooking up and boozing draw out the characters, creating fully fleshed young women, instead of immature, stereotypical brat girls. And once the director does begin to navigate through the storms of teenage love, and the cringeworthy, hormone-driven drama that comes with it, Wilde never loses our interest.
The screenplay, written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, is funny, concious, and most importantly, funny about being conscious. Trying to determine whether or not the girl Amy’s crushing on is also gay, she says that Ryan’s (Victoria Ruesga) tattoos, piercings, and short haircut make up her “gender performance” and therefore, not her sexual identity. The achievement of the writing here and throughout the entire film is the atmosphere of progression without ever cramming it down the audiences’ throats.
But what’s perhaps most impressive about Booksmart is the sheer force with which actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde commands the screen. While she may occasionally fall victim to the temptation of showcasing stylistic, but otherwise unnecessary shots, her acting background surely benefitted the star-making performances she draws out of Feldstein and Dever. There’s a confrontation once Molly and Amy make it to the big party in which the powers of the three women combine to create a ferociously encapsulating experience. It alone is worth the price of admission.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut bursts outward with neon electricity, encompassing, even if overcooking, the teenage tropes levied by similar films of the past, while also staying deeply rooted in the here and now.