Booksmart is a teen comedy for the ages. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut and a 10-year labor of love from writers Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, it’s one of those movies that you think can’t be as good as people say it is, but then you watch it and find out it’s better.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as best friends Molly and Amy, who have spent four years of high school focusing entirely on their studies and getting into good schools at the cost of having fun. When class president Molly finds out on the eve of graduation that the classmates she’s spent years looking down on successfully did both (even the stoner got into Stanford!), she cajoles the more introverted Amy to make up for lost time by going to the biggest party of the year. Hijinks, of course, ensue.
This familiar teen plot is made new again thanks to the movie’s focus on two fully realized female characters, complete with their own goals and instantly recognizable flaws, instead of the nerdy, sex-obsessed boys we tend to get in this genre. It also helps that Molly and Amy’s romantic interests — the jock class VP (Mason Gooding) and a skater girl (Victoria Ruesga), respectively — are never the girls’ primary motivation. Every girl dreams of hooking up with their crush on a momentous night, and Wilde artfully conveys that very female fantasy, but really, it’s the journey they both want. And it’s a journey they can’t imagine experiencing without each other.
There have been a slew of comedies over the past few years that have accurately gotten to the heart of female friendships, warts and all. Booksmart joins the ranks of Bridesmaids, Girls Trip, Rough Night, Lady Bird and Wine Country — all written by women, and mostly directed by them, too. I’ve never seen a movie written by a man that authentically captures the way women talk and interact with each other, whether it’s repressed resentments boiling up at a moment’s notice or conversations rapidly hopping from apologies to gossip to compliments and all the way back again. Booksmart shouldn’t feel as refreshing as it is, as novel, but it does. Despite the increase of these women-led comedies, there still aren’t nearly enough of them.
But that’s a lament for another time. Beyond its inherently feminine focus, Booksmart also soars because every character in it from major to minor is so well developed that a simple shift in perspective would merit his or her own movie. That, in part, is what makes Booksmart stand above teen classics like Mean Girls with its cardboard cutout roster of jocks, goths, preps and nerds.
In movies like Mean Girls, those characters are nameless — not even characters at all — but in Booksmart, they have names and personalities and quirks on par with Molly and Amy. If you don’t leave the theater wanting to know more about theater gays George (Noah Galvin) and Alan (Austin Crute), cool girls Hope (Diana Silvers) and Triple A (Molly Gordon), or over-the-top rich kids Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Gigi (Billie Lourd, brilliantly channeling her mother Carrie Fisher’s chaotic energy), then I’m guessing we didn’t see the same movie.
And finally, there’s Wilde herself. Booksmart doesn’t carry the weight of her celebrity like some other actors’ directorial debuts (*coughMid90scough*), and it’s obvious that her “no assholes” on-set policy worked magic for her crew both above and below the line. Wilde has a director’s eye that is clearly a combination of innate talent and careful study from her 15-year career in front of the camera. The way Wilde conveys both joy and devastation through camera movement is astounding, and the two scenes I’m thinking about in particular make some of the more awkward bits worth the entire movie. And I dare any director this year to film something more beautiful than the underwater pool scene. Wilde has my undying devotion for that scene alone.
Booksmart is so special. And although this review is late and the movie is getting hammered by big-budget garbage like Aladdin (yeah, I said it), I cannot recommend seeing Booksmart in theaters highly enough. Go with your friends. Go with your sisters or your mom. Go by yourself and have a good cry in the car afterwards for the Mollys in your life that you’ve lost touch with since high school, like I did. I promise you won’t regret it.