We are living in something of an, albeit small, new wave of high-school coming-of-age films. Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, Love Simon and Eighth Grade (middle school, but still counts) all represent a more modern and progressive look at teenage-culture. In doing so, they still adhere to the “John Hughes” approach of not talking down to teenage characters on their worldview.
These new movies are smart, they break up the cliches of jocks vs nerds, and the dialogue feels natural. Booksmart, the directorial debut of Oliva Wilde, is smart, funny, and loaded with heart.
Booksmart is about, what a lot of teen comedies are about..a party. Two A+ students & best friends, Amy & Molly (played respectively by Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein), have realized that they have spent the entirety of high school simply studying and focusing on school. They never allowed themselves to let loose and have fun. So, on the night before graduation, Amy and Molly try to find the one party to accomplish this.
On the surface, Booksmart doesn’t sound that much different from the likes of Superbad, except with two females in the lead instead of three guys. Sure, they both bear some similarity to one another and yet coming out of the theater it still felt fresh, new and exciting. It didn’t matter if I saw the party storyline before, Booksmart is a breath of fresh air and I think that has a lot to do with the voice of Olivia Wilde.
Wilde comes flying out of the gate with a lot of flair and style from behind the camera. The tone doesn’t feel too abrasive and allows the audience to gently slide into the comfortable shoes of the main protagonists. Amy and Molly instantly connect on screen and Wilde shows she is able to make a connection between two characters without doing much work at all.
The performances from Dever and Feldstein are uniformly excellent and the two wonderfully play off one another. They feel like real friends, not two actresses playing friends. They have inside jokes and have an almost coded language between one another which is something we all have with each of our friends.
Besides the performances, Wilde injects a lot of energy and elements of surrealism to both the comedy & the visual stylizing. Her hard cuts and fantasy sequences don’t feel overbearing and also gives us insights into the characters that we wouldn’t otherwise have.
Wilde is also unabashed and unafraid in the feminism of the film. She is able to give a perspective that many of these party teen comedies lack, a realness to the female characters. Female characters of other films in this genre are normally used as a prized object of the male character, which frequently leads to the male gaze (knowingly or unknowingly). All that is avoided here. The film isn’t about getting laid (although the characters wouldn’t mind it) and/or scoring “a prize”.
In switching to the female perspective, we see a side of female sexuality that is rarely presented in mainstream cinema. The girls speak very honestly to one another about a range of sexual topics. None of it feels raunchy or in there for the sake of a gross-out conversation, it feels just as natural as Amy and Molly talking about grades. This is central to the identity of the movie.
Philosophy, feminism, and diverse perspectives don’t inherently make the movie great, but they sure can’t hurt and here Wilde uses her perspective to her advantage. It’s about two high school graduating girls, why wouldn’t it have a feminist angle?
Through it all, Booksmart has a lot of heart. It has the comedy, it has the performances and all the directorial stylings you could want, but beneath it all…a story of a close friendship. The dramatic beats of the movie have weight to them because Wilde gives us time to care about these characters and understand them as individuals.
Booksmart is (pardon the pun) a smart film. It has all the comedy you could want in a teen party movie with the insight, heart and character work of other recent high school coming of age movies like Edge of Seventeen. Olivia Wilde crushed it in her feature film directorial debut and I can’t wait to see her next feature.