BOOKSMART

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Olivia Wilde

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Billy Lourd, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Victoria Ruesga, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers, Eduardo Franco, Nico Haraga, Austin Crute, Michael Patrick O’Brien.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart (2019)

Friends since the fifth grade, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, from Beautiful Boy, etc) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, from Lady Bird, etc) are two highly motivated over achieving, bookish high school students who have spent all of their time studying hard and applying themselves diligently, hoping to get good grades and attend elite colleges to further their education and career prospects. But on the eve of graduation they are shocked to discover that even those students who spent most of their time partying and slacking off have also managed to graduate and been accepted into good colleges. Realising that they have wasted most of their time and missed out on some of the quintessential experiences of high school the two friends decide to cut loose and make up for lost time  by attending a wild house party thrown by their handsome bad boy classmate Nick (Mason Gooding). They want to prove to their classmates that they are not as one-dimensional as they seem.

However, the evening does go quite as planned. They don’t know the address of the party, which sets in motion a cross town odyssey with some weird encounters, including one with a possible creepy serial killer. Amy is a proud feminist lesbian who has her heart set on making a connection with the tomboyish skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) while Molly secretly harbours a crush on Nick. But during a night fuelled by drugs, sex and music they learn that love hurts.

A funny, whipsmart and articulate teen coming of age comedy, this is a bit like a cross between Mean Girls and the raunchy Superbad. Inspired by films like Clueless and The Breakfast Club, this high school comedy delivers some positive messages and themes such as the importance of friendship, loyalty, finding your own identity, and about not being quick to pigeon hole or judge others by their appearances or actions, as well es exploring the cost of emotional betrayal. There are several gross out moments here, but also many cringeworthy moments of pain and teen angst that will register strongly.

The nuanced and articulate script has been written by four writers working in collaboration, and they deliver some snappy dialogue. First time feature writers Emily Haplern (The Unit, etc) and Sarah Haskins (Trophy Wife, etc) come from a background in television, while Susanna Fogel previously wrote the action comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me and Katie Silberman wrote Set It Up. While there are many familiar elements to the film, Booksmart subverts most of the usual stereotypes and tropes of the teen comedy, which makes it seem fresh and more optimistic. And the writers don’t judge their characters, some of whom are flawed and truly weird, but interesting in their own way and who come alive on the screen. The writers normalise same sex relationships and women of a certain size as well, but still land the occasional raunchy joke.

Booksmart marks an assured and confident directorial debut for actress Olivia Wilde (tv series House, etc), whose handling of the material is stylish. There is some visually inventive cinematography from Jason McCormick (Lemon, etc) and a clever stop motion animated sequence featuring a couple of Barbie dolls.

Feldstein, who is Jonah Hill’s younger sister, and Dever develop a great chemistry here that seems natural and unforced. Feldstein is great here as the uber confident and controlling Molly, and she has great comic timing and is bursting with energy. Dever brings a nice vulnerability to her endearing performance as the awkward Amy. The strong supporting ensemble includes Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s caring and supportive parents; Jason Sudeikis as the overworked and stressed school principal who moonlights as a Lyft driver; Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd as the colourful and enigmatic Gigi; Skyler Gisondo as Jared, a lonely rich kid who tries too hard to impress others; and Jessica Williams as Miss Fine, their sympathetic and understanding teacher who encourages the two girls to have fun on this one night so that they do not have any regrets about missing out on key experiences.

This is a coming of age that takes a refreshingly feminist perspective on the genre that is usually the preserve of hormonal teenaged boys. With its universal themes and positive messages about friendship and growing up, Booksmart will certainly resonate strongly with its target demographic.

★★★☆

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