Synopsis: On the eve of graduation, high school seniors / BFFs / chronic overachievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discover, to their horror, that the supposed jocks and slackers they looked down on have been accepted to the same elite colleges as them. In a desperate bid to salvage a high school experience devoid of almost any fun, Molly and Amy embark on an odyssey to attend the huge graduation party and finally break a few rules.*
1. If the above synopsis sounds familiar, it is because you, dear reader, have probably watched Superbad (2007). On the surface, the films are remarkably familiar. A pair of foul-mouthed teens, one controlling and dominant, the other meek and passive, attempt to bust out of their high school stereotypes (and lose their virginities) before they leave for college. Both films also come to remarkably similar conclusions centred around the bittersweet concept of childhood friendships being tested to their limits as both friends mature and go their separate ways. Hell, Beanie Feldstein, who plays the ‘Jonah Hill’ role in Booksmart, is literally Jonah Hill’s sister! However, calling Booksmart a mere distaff counterpart of Superbad does the former film a great disservice, because Booksmart actually improves* on Superbad‘s ‘two friends on a mission to party’ formula, and more than deserves its place in the ranks of the great ‘last day of high school’ comedies, along with such luminaries like American Graffiti (1973) and Dazed and Confused (1993).
2. Let’s start with the obvious. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are phenomenally gifted actors, capable of delivering comedy and pathos in a single moment. Feldstein, so good in Lady Bird (2017) in a very different role, is magnificent as the flinty, driven Molly, whose Type A personality gradually mellows across the span of the film. Like her brother in Superbad, Feldstein tears into her expletive-laced dialogue with relish and conveys all facets of a complicated character – one who is intelligent and resilient and supportive, but who can also be mean and pushy and condescending. She is a goddamn force of nature. And Dever (who I have stanned since her unbelievable turn on the TV series Justified when she was only 15), if anything, might be even better. Hers is a quieter but no less effective performance, and watching Amy (who came out as lesbian a few years ago but has never been intimate with a woman) navigate her way through her first romantic experience is equal parts hilarious, cringeworthy, and tear-jerking. There is an extended tracking shot of Dever’s face as she stumbles around the party while her heart slowly breaks, and it is one of the finest moments of acting I have seen in quite a while. Still, as good as Feldstein and Dever are apart, they are even better together. Their chemistry is electric, and they just feel like best friends, from the way they banter, joke and even fight with each other. This film does not work without the audience rooting for its central duo, and the two lead actresses more than deliver in what are hopefully star-making performances for both.
3. A short paragraph of praise for the other actors. The rest of the ‘teen’ ensemble is uniformly superb, giving depth and warmth to liven up tired old high school stereotypes, with special mention to Molly Gordon and Mason Gooding for providing new dimensions to the ‘slut’ and ‘big man on campus’ archetypes in very little screentime. The adult actors are equally good. Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow are adorably clueless as Amy’s parents, Jessica Williams and Jason Sudeikis deliver as high school teachers trying to remain cool (with the former more successful than the latter), and Mike O’Brien kills it in his single scene as a creepy pizza deliveryman. However, the real show stealers are Skyler Gisondo as a trying-way-too-hard rich kid with a crush on Molly, and Billie Lourd as a hilarious space cadet constantly drugged out of her mind.
3. Another plus this film has over Superbad is behind the camera. First-time director Olivia Wilde (yes, that Olivia Wilde) brings a real panache to the construction of Booksmart, and there are moments of style in the film that go far beyond what one would reasonably expect of a typical studio comedy. This includes three lengthy and complex tracking shots, including the aforementioned one of Dever wandering the party, which culminates in a blistering argument between Molly and Amy. Wilde is also not afraid of using tight close-ups and heightened angle shots to make a point, and shows a gift for blocking and composing crowd scenes. There is a real sense of deliberateness about the composition and construction of this movie, and it announces Wilde as a talent behind the camera to be reckoned with. If there is one minor quibble I have, it is that the film is at times too heavy-handed with its needle-drops and soundtrack. It is a hellaciously spectacular (and hip AF) soundtrack though, featuring LCD Soundsystem, Death Grips, and Perfume Genius (among many other fantastic artistes), so I cannot really complain too much about its overuse.
4. All in all, Booksmart is a more than worthy entrant into the high-school comedy canon, with a far greater sense of identity than your run-of-the-mill anonymous studio comedy. Helmed with style and confidence by Olivia Wilde and featuring two superlative performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, this is very likely going to be one of the best films of the year. Every generation gets the high-school comedy they deserve, and I dare say that this one, which combines both vulgarity and empathy in equal measure, bodes very well for the generation ahead. The kids really are alright. Who knew?
* If you are wondering why this review is so late after the release of Booksmart, it is because to this date, the film has yet to be released in Singapore. Most likely this is because of Amy being an out lesbian, which the film treats as a perfectly normal and unremarkable thing because it totally is unless your country engages in some rather regressive gender politics largely as a sop to certain interest groups who kind of have too much power in what is supposed to be a secular society and ok I’ve just made myself mad and I’m going to end things here now. Suffice it to say that if Booksmart ever made it to these shores, it would be rated an R21, which would make very little sense for a teen comedy, wouldn’t it?
** I rewatched Superbad recently, and I’m happy to say that most of it still holds up, in particular Jonah Hill and Michael Cera’s chemistry and performances, along with its touching sentimentality buried beneath that vulgar facade. It is, however, very shaggy in parts, and certain elements (the reliance on a specific homophobic slur and the plotline of cops abusing their authority) did NOT age well.