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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Booksmart

This hilarious and heartfelt film from actor-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde is an instant teen-comedy classic.
By Sarah Ward
July 11, 2019
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Booksmart

This hilarious and heartfelt film from actor-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde is an instant teen-comedy classic.
By Sarah Ward
July 11, 2019
  shares

When Booksmart premiered at SXSW in March to widespread acclaim, it earned immediate comparisons to another teen-centric comedy. Like Superbad, it follows two high-school outsiders who finally let loose before graduation. The film also stars a member of the Feldstein family — Beanie Feldstein, who is best known for Bad Neighbours 2, Lady Bird and the television version of What We Do in the Shadows, and happens to be Jonah Hill's sister. But likening this hilarious exploration of female friendship to a male-centric flick doesn't do Booksmart justice. Nor does badging it a gender-swapped twist on its ostensible predecessor. Drawing upon a smart, sharp script (by seasoned TV writers Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, as well as The Spy Who Dumped Me's Susanna Fogel and Isn't It Romantic's Katie Silberman), actor-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde isn't trying to create a female clone of anything.

Rather, the first-time director brings an insightful and amusing story to the screen, plus two relatable characters that make it shine. Yes, they're young women. Yes, the film is filled with gross-out gags and other outlandishness. And yes, this type of fare doesn't usually focus on girls, favour a feminine perspective or stem exclusively from female voices. That says as much about the film industry as it does about Booksmart, however, and it isn't a new issue. As seen with Bridesmaids and the spate of comedies that followed, comparing female-fronted movies to their supposed male counterparts has become society's way of coping with a clear failing. We don't have much of a framework for films like these because they're much too rare and, even as they gradually increase in number, we're not conditioned to seeing women in these situations. Addressing that gap by broadening the range of tales told really couldn't be more crucial. But it's equally important to recognise a standout picture not because it recalls another flick, but because it's truly a delight on its own merits.

With its affectionate energy, inclusive vibe, side-splitting gags and excellent lead performances, Booksmart boasts plenty of cheer-worthy highlights, each making the movie's generally familiar narrative feel fresh. The day before they're due to don their caps and gowns, listen to speeches and farewell everything they know, firm best friends Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) suddenly come to a realisation: they've actually wasted the past few years. While the studious duo worked hard to secure spots at impressive colleges, their partying peers also scored places at prestigious schools. An overachiever who'll never be told that she can't do something, Molly is especially incensed, convincing Amy to use their last night as secondary students to make up for what they've been missing.

Coordinating outfits, hopping between celebrations, dealing with pesky adults, chasing their respective crushes, trying mind-altering substances — that's Molly and Amy's big leap from brainiacs to party gals. As they jump around Los Angeles, they not only navigate a series of raucous antics, but encounter a lively roster of supporting players, including Jason Sudeikis as their Lyft-driving principal, Jessica Williams as the teacher who's ready to rage with them, and scene-stealer Billie Lourd as a free-spirited classmate. Charting her protagonists' eventful evening, Wilde always finds the right approach for every moment. Booksmart segues effortlessly between spirited soundtrack choices, anarchic comic set-pieces and one of the most memorable animated scenes to hit cinemas in years, with each directorial selection intimately tied to the picture's central pair. That's the key to this astute coming-of-age comedy, because none of the revelry means anything if it doesn't take the characters on a journey.

If Booksmart had just stuck with wild hijinks and kept its fun skin-deep, it would've still proven an enjoyable night at the movies, immersing audiences in its upbeat party atmosphere. And yet, the film ventures beyond hedonistic thrills and straightforward life lessons. While those elements are part of the movie, they're the equivalent of streamers and balloons — nice to have, but not the main attraction. Instead, Booksmart uses its madcap merriment to delve into Molly and Amy's close bond, and the reality that it too will change along with everything else in their lives. Each episodic escapade speaks to something within their complex friendship, unpacking a connection that's loving and messy, shifting yet solid, and supportive but sometimes overwhelming all at once. Relationships, especially lifelong platonic friendships between adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, are like that — something which this equally hilarious and heartfelt film embraces.

It's no understatement to say that, even with everything else turning out swimmingly, this would've been a completely different movie without Feldstein and Dever. Wilde asked the duo to live together to develop a genuine rapport, and the naturalistic results show in every scene. Booksmart isn't short on dialogue, but it conveys just as much via body language, with the talented actors wearing their camaraderie like a second skin. That said, they're not just a complicated, compelling, compliment-slinging double act. Whether Feldstein is standing up to Molly's taunting peers, or Dever is showing how the out-but-uninitiated Amy remains awkward about love and sex, Booksmart's rising stars ensure that their on-screen alter-egos couldn't feel more authentic. With its frank and funny snapshot of one crazy, revelatory night, the film does the same with the entire teenage experience.

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