The next great high-school movie is here. Booksmart is that rare treat: smart, funny, wise, sparkling with wit both visually and in its snappy dialogue, and far, far kinder than we have been trained to expect from movies about teenagers. Or maybe Booksmart is simply an authentic reflection of These Kids Today. Are they really this nice? They make me feel old, but also my heart breaks for them in the best possible way.
I’m tempted to call Booksmart the Clueless for a new generation. There’s a lot of overlap, in verve and style and also in this how movie’s jointed-at-the-hip bestie protagonists, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), are – like Cher in Clueless – sailing through high school on a wave of popularity that has felt like success to them, until they now come to realize that they have both overestimated their own triumphs and underestimated almost everything about their friends and classmates.
But unlike Cher, who struggled academically, Amy and Molly are classroom overachievers – class president and valedictorian Molly is on her way to Yale, in fact – but, like Cher, they still have a lot to learn about themselves.
And they are going to cram in all that learning (or so they think) on this, the last night before graduation after the very last day of high school. I’m not sure that the coming-of-age story gets any more coming-of-age-ier than at that sharp and sudden cusp between high school and the rest of your life, which seems to take forever to get to and then crashes down over you with a startling abruptness. One day you’re a high-school kid, and literally the next, you’re a grown-up. At least in theory.
Molly and Amy have been nose-to-the-books for the past four years, and full of disdain for the kids who have neglected school (or so they’ve believed) in favor of fun, and get a smack-in-the-face eye-opener about how much they’ve missed out on. Now, they have “one night left to have partied and studied in high school.”
This is like the opposite of cramming for a test with just one night: These young women who’ve spent high school studying decide to cram for their youthfulness, thinking they worked too hard and played to little.
The results will not be pretty. But they will be hilarious in that laugh-and-cry-at-the-same-time way that makes this movie work even more powerfully if you’re already long past adolescence and recall that bittersweet ache that came with burgeoning self-awareness: the pain but also the hard-won (and surprisingly gratifying) resignation of giving up presuming that you know everything about everything, that you don’t have to know everything about everything.
This perfectionist drive seems to be a particular affliction of high-achieving teen girls, and I am so happy to see a movie like Booksmart granting permission to those girls to go easier on themselves. I was like Molly and Amy, too, and would have loved to see a movie like this when I was a teenager – a celebration of young women for who they are and where they are.
Besides the big-picture feel-good elements, I adored other features of this movie. The characters are vividly drawn; every single one of Molly and Amy’s classmates are beautiful and original and distinct and warm and human and wonderfully weird, as are Molly and Amy themselves. I appreciated the complete lack of gross-out humiliation, which so many lazy teen comedies fall back on; no one here needs to be shamed or embarrassed about anything they want or anything they do, and that is so very sublime, so very humane. I noted the generous portrayals of the kids’ elders, like the school principal, briefly but boldly sketched by Jason Sudeikis as an overworked, underpaid GenXer exhausted by the unflagging enthusiasm of his juniors; no one here is done in overly simplistic caricature.
And in the bigger picture, there’s the portrait of unwavering support that best girlfriends give each other – no the take-downs we are so accustomed to seeing on screen.
It’s hard to believe that this is the first feature film that actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde has made. It’s so self-assured, so inventive, so high-achieving in a way that Amy and Molly would recognize but without any of their selfish (if also amiable) arrogance. Booksmart easily leaps over that first-time-director bar.
This is a movie that is confident but also seemingly effortless. It is pure joy – about the life experience of girls. Which makes Booksmart even more unusual, and more welcome.
BOOKSMART ( 4 ) • Directed by Olivia Wilde• Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams • Rated R • 102 min. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Northridge Cinemas