Both the situation and the setting of Booksmart are familiar to the point of cliché. It’s the last year of high school for two female best friends, in the teenage-movie fantasy land of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Director Olivia Wilde is foolhardy enough to try to put a new spin on the ancient formula.
Senior class president Molly (Beanie Feldstein from Lady Bird) and her friend Amy (Beautiful Boy‘s Kaitlyn Dever) have worthwhile places to go after graduation — the Ivy League and Botswana. They spent their school years studying instead of partying, and now, just as the year-end festivities swing into high gear, they realize it’s their last chance to do what they decided wasn’t all that worth doing for the last four years. Cue a blizzard of alcohol, assorted psychedelics, adolescent sexual experimentation, and rapid-fire wisecrack dialogue.
For years, smarty-pants critics and spoilsports in the audience have laughed up their sleeves at teenage sex/romance/lifestyle exploitationers, in which male filmmakers (and a select few women) put their thoughts and words into the mouths of teen girl characters, mostly at the girls’ expense. The alumni include John Hughes (The Breakfast Club), Amy Heckerling (Clueless), Reginald Hudlin (House Party), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused), Diablo Cody (Juno), Daniel Waters (Heathers), Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring), and Cameron Crowe (Say Anything). This one aims to be different.
If we’re feeling generous we could say that director Wilde — working from a screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman — is reworking a tried-and-true concept in light of what we’ve learned in the days since Molly Ringwald sorted through her boyfriends. Booksmart‘s Molly and Amy have their eyes on something different than an unattainable prom king. If anything, the two serious-minded young women see the frantic last-minute debauchery as a way to fill in the gaps in their education, and to prove that even grinds can put on some moves (“We are smart and fun”). They’re in no mood to be dismissed by “underachievers.” Actor-turned-helmer Wilde, a veteran of The O.C. as well as Drinking Buddies, knows where the funniest gags live.
Molly and Amy’s quest involves a large, loud cast of comic performers. Jason Sudeikis, the director’s real-life partner, plays the loosey-goosey Principal Brown, who moonlights as a ride-hailing driver. Conspicuous consumer Gigi (Billie Lourd) is the high school’s Paris Hilton. Amy’s parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) operate on their own daffy plane of reality. Ms. Fine the school counselor (Jessica Williams) would probably be too intelligent and pulled together to even go near a high school in real life. A few of the characters seem recycled from the Hughes epoch of the 1980s, à la Triple A, the school’s easiest sex object (Molly Gordon) and Jared, a hapless rich kid one step behind everyone else, constantly trying to spend his way to popularity (freckle-faced Skyler Gisondo). But the lovable-loser prize goes to the long-suffering Lido Pizza man (Michael Patrick O’Brien).
Our heroines make it to three separate graduation-eve parties, each populated and decorated with the minutest of telling details. Would-be playboy Jared hosts a blowout aboard his own yacht with a live band — but no one shows up. The high school’s self-absorbed theater majors create an elaborate, costumed “murder mystery” evening that ends up looking more like an over-studied resume-builder than a social gathering. The A-list party, where Molly and Amy finally summon up the nerve to let their libidos out for an airing, features hallucinogenic strawberries and a cute sequence with animated dolls. It’s obvious that in 2019, any youth-market comedy set in California takes full advantage of the state’s legalization of cannabis.
If nothing else, Wilde’s rehabbing of the teen female popularity-contest subgenre demonstrates that with an energetic cast — Feldstein and Dever lead the way as the most sensible people in every room they enter — and lickety-split putdown dialogue, anything is possible. Not to put too fine a point on it, but for sheer irrational exuberance Booksmart is the freshest youth-market timewaster of the season.