Directed by Olivia Wilde | Written by Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins | 102 min | Netflix
This doesn’t happen nearly often enough: A movie walking a tightrope of joyful brilliance, where the energy of the thing in every department—script, performance, direction, production, score—is all working at a high level to produce something original and wonderful, something that sends you floating out the cinema at the end. This feeling, which I will subsequently call The Booksmart Effect, hasn’t happened to me since Mad Max: Fury Road or maybe Green Room. The only downside of a movie like Booksmart is it’s a living reminder of the paucity of quality comedy we get at the multiplex.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein of Ladybird) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends, and two massive overachievers in their California high school. The one thing they’ve got, aside from a genuine devotion for each other, is they’ve both denied themselves a lot of good times for hard work, which has delivered them into Ivy League colleges. When Molly discovers that some of the more party-hearty of her classmates also got into great colleges while still having a blast through high school, it blows her mind. She and Amy commit to having one great, rule-breaking night before they graduate.
Structurally, much here isn’t new: We have the ever-popular scene of a teen in the bathroom stall while other kids talk smack about her, the accidental drug-trip scene, and the best friends falling out and making up scenes, but it’s all done with such verve, such relentless joy. Part of it is that Wilde, in her first feature effort, knows exactly what she wants, and gets it even when she ventures into stop-motion animation. Another part is the terrific script, with every scene delivering laughs, some coming so thick and fast you miss subsequent lines. And it’s the casting—this is a lovely group of performers, helping convey progressive, feminist politics along with chronic laughs. It’s really about the importance of friendship at a time when everything is raw and intense, and perfectly captures the feelings of sheer potential at that time of life.
A big shout-out to Gigi, who is my new hero. She’s played by scene-stealer Billie Lourd. Her mother, Carrie Fisher, would’ve been proud.
If anything, the lack of real antagonists in Booksmart makes you wonder where all the genuinely selfish asshole teens are, because, let’s face it, some high schoolers can be cruel. But when so much of the film is so thrillingly fun, you won’t miss that darker side of the high school experience. In no way does this feel inauthentic—it’s as compelling last year’s Eighth Grade while managing to be as raucous as movies like Superbad or even Animal House. It’s a genuine mystery to me how the filmmakers managed to make this feel both very current—this is clearly set in 2019—and yet somehow speak to a universal teenage experience.
Booksmart is a remarkable film, and I only resist calling it a masterpiece because I can’t wait to see what else Wilde is planning to show us.