‘Booksmart’ Is a New Breed of High School Classic

Comedies about American teenagers are not all created equal, but they are certainly created similar. Timeless classics such as Clueless and poorly-aging hits like Easy A all share the same basic ingredients—outcasts, jocks, house parties, sex jokes, and One Last Night (or Day, or Week) to turn the tables and fight the powers that be. Yes, I just described genre as a whole—welcome to Much Ado’s Intro to Film, please have your books ready by Monday.

But like its title suggests, Booksmart already knows this history, and it won’t let that knowledge go to waste. By carefully choosing which tropes to play with and which to forgo, first-time feature director Olivia Wilde has accomplished the impossible: making the high school comedy fresh again. Funny, modern, and uniquely kind, Booksmart is a party film that, while not entirely free of formula, marks a new generation of movies about kids figuring out who they are and who they want to be—with the help of some drugs and a good time. Along with its inventive direction, pitch-perfect performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever cement Booksmart as the movie of the summer, and cement the leads as comedy stars in the making.

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Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in ‘Booksmart’

Fresh off their supporting roles in last year’s Lady Bird and Beautiful Boy, Feldstein and Dever here share top-billing as Molly and Amy, two best friends and academic superstars trying to get through their very last day of high school. They’re not quite nerds, but they also aren’t cool—they spend most of their time together, studying or having sleepovers in their bedrooms decorated with trinkets and protest signs. Molly, a know-it-all with an acerbic wit and no time to waste, is clearly the dominant friend, and as a result is always pushing around anxious Amy, who’s been out for two years but never kissed a girl. Yet the strength of their loving, weird friendship tends to subsume any power struggle—the two share private dance parties, joke about masturbation, and make entire scenes out of genuinely complimenting each other. Their relationship is refreshingly true-to-life, with each quirk rooted in their own personal history—and it makes the catty, distant female friendships of movies like Easy A and Mean Girls look downright crude.

Having worked their asses off all through high school, Molly and Amy are on their way to Yale and Stanford, respectively, and they have the superiority complexes to prove it. The only problem? It turns out that many of their hard-partying, sex-having classmates are also going Ivy, obliterating the girls’ self-concept as, well, better than them (Molly’s record-scratch moment of running through the halls and demanding to know where everyone is going to college is tear-inducingly funny). Forever a try-hard, Molly hatches a plan to to party with her peers, get Amy laid, and prove that she is fun after all.

One last night? One last party? It’s a tale as old at time, but Booksmart takes it in wild, uproarious directions. There’s a party boat, a murder mystery, a dance sequence, hallucinogens, claymation, karaoke, prison, and an obligatory crying-in-the-pool scene. The girls run into rich kids Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Gigi (Billie Lourd, demonstrating the comedic chops of her late mother Carrie Fisher) everywhere they go, and while the joke of their constant reappearance starts to run thin, the actors are all funny enough to pull it off.

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Beanie Feldstein and director Olivia Wilde on the set of ‘Booksmart’

But like any good high school party movie, the action is fun, quick, and ultimately inconsequential. What really matters is the relationship the girls share, and how quickly that relationship is changing before their eyes. With summer and college on the near horizon, Amy and Molly are about to say goodbye to what they’ve built together, and all their stress and uncertainty explode into a massive fight in the film’s third act. While the fight doesn’t feel entirely earned on-screen, any woman with a ride-or-die best friend in high school can read tension into every one of their interactions. With the lead-up and fall-out set to the sweeping, heartsick songs of Perfume Genius, Rhye, and LCD Soundsystem, how can you help but be moved?

On that note, Booksmart really benefits from a cutting edge, of-the-moment soundtrack that speaks to Olivia Wilde’s curatorial skills—deep cuts from Discovery and Death Grips, brand-new tunes from Leikeli47 and Lizzo, and throwbacks from Salt-N-Pepa and Alanis Morissette all fill out the nearly two-hour album that’s now available to stream. Kids these days know good music.

Through Amy’s crushes and adventures into hooking up, Booksmart also attempts to center and normalize queer sexuality, but some recurring jokes about lesbian sex still feel like they were written by—or at least for—straight people. With such a large, women-only writing team (a joint effort between Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman), it’s particularly disappointing when the script misses the mark. Ultimately, however, the film’s language does much more good than harm, and the laughs never stem from bullying or cruelty—something that can’t be said of most other movies in this genre.

It’s easy to describe Booksmart as Lady Bird meets Superbad, or otherwise refer to the “women-ification” of the party film. And while it does pay homage to both of those movies (see: the goodbye scene at the airport), those descriptions do a disservice to what Olivia Wilde and her team have created—a small-budget, big-laughs original film about young women, packed to the gills with style and heart. Besides, the real due is owed to Dazed and Confused.

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