Mix together Mean Girls, Superbad and a bit of Lady Bird, and you have the hilariously poignant plot of Booksmart. The directorial debut of Oliva Wilde (Tron Legacy, Meadowland), this is a comedy that feels simultaneously familiar and fresh for the 2010’s, at least as far as coming of age films go. It tackles your standard high school existential crisis- the fear that you didn’t do everything in high school- through the lens of much needed female and queer representation. Broken down to its individual parts, you can make out obvious plot points and choreograph how they’ll obstruct the narrative. But the character moments, jokes and camerawork in between those points are just clever enough that you’ll be laughing too hard to care.
It’s the penultimate day of high school and senior bff’s Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Lady Bird’s Beanie Feldstein) seemingly have their priorities in order. They studied hard, got into Yale and Columbia, and have various car stickers and posters to epitomize their feminist ideals. Molly’s even the class president and valedictorian, set to give the graduation speech next morning. They’re also the tragic outsiders amongst Crocker High School’s cliques, all of whom view this “study first, party never” approach as deeply laughable. But neither Amy nor Molly are concerned. They acted mature while everyone else got drunk, high and out of control, which will surely tip the success scales in their favor, right?
Not so fast. Much to Molly’s horror during a bathroom conversation, all their classmates did get into the likes of Yale, Harvard and Georgetown, despite their blatant unruliness and rowdy behavior. What, she asks, was the point of all that excessive studying she and Amy prioritized for the past four years? To rectify these decisions, the two decide to have one true night of adventure, hoping to attend an end of the year party at the house of Molly’s less than bright, but attractive enough, VP classmate Nick (Mason Gooding). Molly can take a moment to strip down her haughty, studious image and Amy, who came out two years ago, can finally muster the courage to hang out with her girl crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). Based on this description and the trailers, you’d think this movie is gender-flipped Superbad, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The fact that Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s sister make these parallels a bit more ironic. But it’s more nuanced than that.
Booksmart’s appeal comes from how it retells a stock narrative without the male-centric, juvenile antics we’ve come to expect from coming of age films. Amy and Molly aren’t ashamed of discussing sex, as seen by one conversation involving shocking revelations about a stuffed panda. But the film is not about them seeking sex. Instead, it’s about sisterhood and friendship, a chance to simply let go and experience life in the moment. It helps that Dever and Feldstein have amazing chemistry, complimenting each other’s comedic timing and personalities that you believe their friendship to be genuine. Even something as simple as Amy working up her first kiss feels original by simply treating her LGBTQ status like any other “boy kisses girl” story we’ve seen a million times. It’s both different and the same.
Like most coming of age adventures, nothing goes right the first time. There’s a Harold and Kumar-level amount of obstacles confronting Amy and Molly before they even reach Nick’s party. From these oddball moments emerge a variety of characters, both young and old, who gradually reveal themselves to be more than your standard coming of age archetype. A rich and obliviously needy classmate named Jared (Skyler Gisondo) goes from hosting a failed graduation yacht party to opening up about his insecurities. A run-in with the school principal (played by Jason Sudeikis) makes for an uncomfortable phone gag. And Billie Lourd kills it as the slightly loopy and drug-crazed Gigi, who talks like River Tam on acid while popping in and out of key locations with no explanation as to how she got there. Wonderful band of oddballs, this cast is.
Equally pleasing is the comedy, which provides a more subdued take on your standard Apatow/McKay raunchiness. Some jokes provoke amusement from sheer embarrassment, such as Molly teasing a sexual relationship to Amy’s parents, played by Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow. Others are more spur of the moment gags, like a pizza car “robbery” that soon devolves into a rebuke of poor decision making. And sometimes the writers just throw caution to the wind and bask in a joke’s pure surrealism, leading to the weirdest portrayal of characters tripping out since the Jump Street movies. All I can say is, you’ll never look at a doll the same way again.
Once the two finally reach their destination, however, you can almost sense how things will play out. There are some moments of characters loosening up and opening up at the party, followed by shocking revelations that lead to a fallout. That might sound spoilery but it’s just something you expect from coming of age story third acts, showing that Booksmart can’t subvert every cliché in the book. Instead, it simply reframes the appearance of that fallout, invoking some deeply intimate camera shots to keep conflict restrained and at the center of attention. You’ve seen this fight before, but because the character dynamics between Molly and Amy are so strong, these cliches don’t stop you from feeling invested. And that’s the mark of a good story.
Verdict: 4.5 Stars out of 5
You might balk at the idea of more coming of age high school dramadies, but Booksmart is worth a watch. Whether it will reach Breakfast Club-level status is unclear but, on its own, this film is funny, heartwarming and relatable. Dever and Feldstein’s buddy dynamic, mixed with Wilde’s directorial style, has created something that speaks to the Gen Z audience while retaining the subgenre’s most universal theme: change is inevitable, but should be celebrated with friends. Why else do you think these movies have remained timeless since the 1980’s?