Olivia Wilde’s uneven career as a film actress and producer spans over a decade, featuring more duds that undervalue her talent (Year One, Cowboys & Aliens, Butter, The Words, Life Itself) than gems that highlight it (Drinking Buddies, Rush, um, Her). Stepping behind the camera for her feature-length comedy debut Booksmart, Wilde’s knack for character nuance, comedic timing and capturing affecting, truthful moments finally gets the opportunity to shine, albeit vicariously. Both subtle and eccentric, side-splittingly funny and heartbreakingly identifiable, Booksmart resembles a softer, more cerebral, female-centric version of Greg Mottola’s Superbad.
“…Molly decides to give socializing a try – but she and Amy only have one night left to “study” parties prior to embracing adulthood.”
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are BFFs on the verge of graduating high school. They’ve pledged to “get straight A’s while giving zero F’s.” After a brilliantly-executed, sobering bathroom encounter, Molly decides to give socializing a try – but she and Amy only have one night left to “study” parties prior to embracing adulthood. They embark on a quest to get to the party – hosted by hunky Nick (Mason Gooding), who may or may not be the object of Molly’s affection – visiting a variety of notable destinations along the way.
Wilde assembled a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, led by two stellar young actresses, whose chemistry emits so many sparks, it puts celluloid at risk of catching fire. Whether they’re chatting about everyday bullshit or doing their hilarious little dance routine, Feldstein and Dever are remarkable. Molly and Amy’s peers, both friends and foes, are fleshed-out individuals, and there are some hilarious extended cameos by the likes of Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis. The film’s overcrowded group of screenwriters has come up with a plethora of zingers: there’s a character called Triple A, who “gave roadside assistance to three guys last year.”
“…a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, led by two stellar young actresses, whose chemistry emits so many sparks, it puts celluloid at risk of catching fire…”
The deluge of scribblers, as it tends to happen, also leads to a sometimes-jarring blend of excess (an extended boat “non-party”), odd side-tracks (a stop-motion animation interlude during a drug-induced hallucination that hammers its feminist points home) and plot contrivances, especially towards the end. Not all of the jokes land. Yet it’s easy to overlook these flaws when so much is done right. From subverting the cliché of a “high school victim” to bringing an assured hand to relatable sequences, such as the discomfort of recognizing your Uber driver, Wilde lands the assured hand of a much more seasoned director to the proceedings. Legendary underground DJ and producer Dan the Automator provides the film’s thumping, emotional score.
It’s refreshing to see intelligent teens (Molly and Amy nonchalantly switch to conversing in Chinese at one point) in a film that doesn’t resort to easy, scatological humor for laughs. In a world mired by conflict and dark entertainment that mirrors it, Booksmart takes a somewhat radical approach by endorsing a bit of light-hearted anarchy. Wilde’s crowd-pleaser cautions against excessively conforming to predetermined stipulations and underscores the value of fun and acceptance. It shows how swiftly a euphoric moment can turn into devastation and vice-versa. If this is just the beginning of her journey as a director, one can only imagine the gems Wilde has in store.
Booksmart (2019) Directed by Olivia Wilde. Starring Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Skyler Gisondo, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Stephanie Styles, Diana Silvers.
8 out of 10