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Review: Booksmart

by Chris Feil

Booksmart feels like a gift from the comedy gods - it’s firmly built in the teen buddy comedy traditions yet with its own unique diversions, representationally rewarding without the condescension of pandering, and a gaspingly funny look at female friendship that is also authentically moving. An impressive first feature from actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is joyous and it is here to fucking own the summer movie season.

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein star as Amy and Molly, two best friends who prioritized their studies all throughout high school in the hopes of landing in the elite colleges of their dreams. On the eve of graduation, they shockingly discover that all the hard-partying kids also managed to nail their SATs and get accepted into top schools despite appearances. In a comically foiled and app-assisted evening, the two young women try to make up for lost time by finding a way into the most epic pre-graduation party.

For all of the ways you might expect Amy and Molly’s night to go awry, Booksmart delights in still delivering the stylistically unexpected in its very familiar formula. As indebted to the likes of Suberbad that this film is, Wilde infuses it with more fantasy than reality to convey a youthful emotional truth. The hedonism of their peers is captured with gonzo lunacy, a first experience with drugs snaps the film into a Robot Chicken-esque animated sequence, poolside longing is wrought with intuitive visual lyricism. Wilde has crafted a subtly bold debut, approaching the film with a level of experimentation that is both exciting and well-attuned to her young subjects.

Aside from the smart ways that the film captures the way teens navigate the in-person and online spheres in 2019, Booksmart is painstakingly detailed in its authenticity detailing the relationship between Amy and Molly. While summer plans and micro-resentments threaten their unity just like we’ve seen from other teen films, their connection is stacked with enough non-secrets and emotional support to feel true to life to degrees that other lesser films should envy. The result is something that makes us care for them both as people and as a singular unit - part of Booksmart’s wisdom is how it acknowledges such a bond as something outside of ourselves to be nurtured.

Much of this is indebted to the brilliant pairing of Dever and Feldstein. Dever’s Amy pines for the cool skater chick, but Dever wisely doesn’t overplay her nerves or awkwardness as Amy discovers her confidence. She is charged with the wider character arc but charts Amy’s growth with organic subtlety, understated but refreshingly real. Feldstein is more than her vocal opposite, she instead turns Molly’s boldness into a demonstrative show of filling the gaps of assuredness left by Amy’s hesitation. Her performance finds Molly to act out of goading support rather than pushiness, hilariously offering her own unworldliness to make Amy feel seen.

Their performances are symbiotic and complementary, the kind of cinematic twosome we want to see cast opposite eachother again and again. It's part of what makes Booksmart one of the smartest depictions of friendship in a genre full of them.

But there is even more comic brilliance on display in the film’s wondrous ensemble, most notably in the sheer anarchy of Billie Lourd’s performance. Playing rich weirdo Gigi, Lourd’s performance is like a glitterbomb set piece and a geniusly destabilizing force - even her peripheral bits throughout are the stuff to send the audience into perplexed sustained giggle fits. Elsewhere Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Skyler Gisondo, and Noah Galvin texture Booksmart with warmth and wit.

Booksmart is so winningly and inventively composed that you barely need notice the ways it is familiar. But what sinks deepest, and transcends the rest of the plentiful cynicism currently filling multiplexes, is its deep well of genuine emotion that it taps into (and also snaps out of) at all of the right moments.

Grade: B+

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Reader Comments (19)

Glad to hear. American movies have generally been anemic this year so far besides Us.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

I’m sorry but I’m getting tired of these try hard white girl coming of age movies.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnon

Looks good and I smell success.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

I'm very excited to see this - Feldstein + Dever sounds great. Thanks Chris!

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Ehhh can we get one of these with some POC kids? Weve been getting a lot of these white coming of age films lately and I feel for all these white girls (Lady Bird was amazing) but I wouldn’t mind seeing a different experience. Hby?

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

Anon & kris01 - Hearts Beat Loud. The Sun is Also a Star. The Hate U Give. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. While not all comedies, representation is not entirely lacking in high school films of the last couple of years. What bothers me about your posts is the growing reality that we are in a time where large parts of society will only be able to judge art based on a very narrow prism. This is a film about women, made by women. That should mean something too.

To be clear - representation is important, of course. But seeing that 2 of the first 5 comments after a sterling review we’re about the race of the characters.... well it’s infuriating.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJake

@Jake I thought about those as well and since you decided to comment I’ll voice my point further;I really dont think the general public is frothing at the mouths for the films youve just mentioned. I suppose my ire derives from the fact that nobody seems to want to hear POC stories whether they are there or not. That and well COME ON man haha, you good and well know there are more of these movies for white kids than POC. Im not saying they shouldnt exist (I did say I loved Lady Bird and will probs watch this eventually too), but maybe release them at a slower clip for now to even things out? Ahhh I dunno. And you’re also right about it being great that there are more female stories. And indeed this was a good review. I think your “fury” could be levied by remembering that people can only say so much in comments. I just wrote a huge paragraph for you more thoroughly explaining my point but...w-who has the time for that every single time? Sometimes there’s more beyond the prism is what Im saying.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

This is my favourite movie of the year so far. Great review Chris.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJW

Kris01: I appreciate the response, my friend. I understand your points and, like I said, representation is incredibly important and should be discussed frequently. My only real point is: we have a film here that is directed by a woman, spotlights women, and is, by all accounts, really good. Can the first response not be a negative one about representation?

Also, I’ve tried to think of high school films that have a white main character and focus on female friendship. I’ve come up with Clueless, Mean Girls, and Lady Bird. That is over nearly 25 years - is there an epidemic of these kinds of films that I’m just missing?

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJake

@Jake I see where you’re coming from. However, I think this is where you and me differ because I don’t think I’m required to comment anything specifically whether the review is good or not (Chris is the tits around here, Im sure he already knows haha). I understand the depressing aspect of someone just leaping in with a negative statement (my comment was decidedly more mixed as I stated my apppreciation for the genre), but, well, that’s film criticism. Maybe I can look into it a little more but off the top of my head white people had their time in the 80s (John Hughes movies, Fast Times..., St Elmo’s Fire, etc) and 90s (Clueless, and more than a few teen tv shows) with coming of age films, and within the last 5 years there’s been an outpouring of them (Edge of Seventeen, Lady Bird, that one with Bel Powley?, Eighth Grade, Kings of Summer, Boyhood, yada yada). Its not a problem. Those movies dont need to stop. We just need to even out the ratio. Release POC coming of age stories at a faster clip. Here’s the kicker; I have no stake in this because I generally avoid teen movies. They’re so mean to each other...

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

*gives Jake standing ovation*

Well said!

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

ANY film the celebrates and focuses on women, made by women, I'M IN!, regardless of the race of the characters.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMallinckrodt

Hailee Steinfeld is half Philipino, although I realize her family was white in Edge of Seventeen. I think we can all agree Hollywood can do better with greenlighting more women-directed films, as well as more films about female friendships, and more films about POC. Representation matters in ALL of these ways.

I also wish it were easier to see a lot of these types of movies. Booksmart isn't playing in my local, huge theater. The Hate U Give and Searching didn't play there, either.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Wholeheartedly agree with kris01.

It's not an attack on female stories when pointing out the majority of them are of a certain race.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRiley

Cannot wait to see this. I think nearly everyone who saw Lady Bird was hoping Beanie would get her own movie. Thank you, cinema gods.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The fact that people are giving standing ovations to comments that defend lack of diversity, lol.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

This looks like a rip off of "Superbad"- I found the trailer painful to watch

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I actively disliked this film....felt like I was scrolling through Instagram. The comedy felt forced and the soundtrack (Indie version of Unchained Melody at the end? Yikes). Loved the diversity and the leads are very talented but nope, felt like a hodgepodge of several better films. Seem to be the minority though!

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSean Casey

This was very very funny and fun, and the Gen X to Baby Boomer audience I seemed to be with also seemed to enjoy it a lot. Future Cult Classic.

May 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

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