A film review by Craig J. Koban June 15, 2019

BOOKSMART jjj

2019, R, 105 mins.

 

Kaitlyn Dever as Amy  /  Beanie Feldstein as Molly  /  Mason Gooding as Nick  /  Skyler Gisondo as Jared  /  Victoria Ruesga as Ryan  /  Billie Lourd as Gigi  /  Molly Gordon as Annabelle "Triple A"  /  Jason Sudeikis as Principal Jordan Brown  /  Lisa Kudrow as Amy's Mother  /  Will Forte as Amy's Father

Directed by Olivia Wilde  /  Written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman

BOOKSMART doesn't so much transcend and rise above high school teen comedy formulas as much as it does tap into its already well worn genre playbook, albeit with some nifty and fresh new refinements.  

Like countless other examples that have come before it, this film delves into a storyline of a couple of graduating social outcasts desperately trying to attain one last night of debauchery and fun with the popular kids that have previously shunned them.  Nothing in BOOKSMART reinvents the narrative and thematic wheel, but where it scores huge qualitative points is in how stupendously well acted it is by its two deeply attuned and assured leads on top of being smartly written.  That's what helps separate itself from a very overcrowded pack. 

And how refreshing is it to see an ultra rare, hard R rated teen comedy written by women, directed by a woman, and featuring young women as the main stars?  

BOOKSMART represents the feature film directing debut of Olivia Wilde, whose previous career acting on TV and in movies has obviously assisted her with cultivating a performance centric approach to her rookie effort.  She not only crafts authentically rendered and lived in characters to tell her storytelling, but she also infuses in BOOKSMART an honest sense of understanding and compassion for the young women populating it.  So many teen comedies are witless and puerile exercises in scatological bathroom gags and pratfalls of the lowest common denominator that shamelessly use their adolescent characters as props in service of its lewdness.  That's not to say that BOOKSMART isn't crude (it earns its R rating), but Wilde's overall approach here is decidedly wittier and kinder, showing her characters as intelligent, self aware, and vulnerable human beings struggling with the nagging uncertainties about their place in the world.  The film's rampant vulgarity doesn't seem to overwhelm the more insular story of two girls dealing with notions of their tight sisterhood being threatened by upcoming adult responsibilities.  Very few comedies mix crassness and sweetness as well as BOOKSMART. 

 

 

And you're unlikely to find a more in synch comic tandem in a movie this year than what Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever bring to the table, playing high school BFFs that you immediately believe have spent a lifetime together in each other's company.  Not only do they have instant, bankable chemistry and near pitch perfect comic timing, but this dynamic duo also are able to adeptly navigate this film's alternating tonal hemispheres, which usually segues from outright goofiness in one scene to supreme and palpable distress in others.  Plus, they have this superb rat-ta-tat symmetry when it comes to harnessing Wilde's shrewdly written dialogue exchanges.  Lesser actresses would have capsized this film, but Feldstein and Dever are both a riotously funny and dramatically grounded pair of misfits.   

The plot itself here kind of coasts leisurely by on autopilot in terms of basic setup and execution.  Feldstein and Dever play Molly and Amy respectively, two borderline hyperactive and ferociously proud bookworms that have a shared fanatical drive to achieve scholastic excellence over any other imperative.  Their singular driven goal in life is to get into the finest and most prestigious colleges possible in fear of ending up in some low rent and looked down upon community school that they believe most of their irresponsible and hard partying fellow students will end up in.  One of the sneaky curveballs that BOOKSMART does throw at viewers is the shock and dismay that Molly and Amy have when they discover that - GASP! - their less high minded and rule breaking classmates have miraculously managed to also get into colleges of high pedigree.  With their whole worldview of high school systematically destroyed, Molly and Amy realize that they could have had proverbial good, partying times alongside getting good grades, the former that they completely avoided throughout their scholastic lives.  The two then make a pact to have one wild night of partying with the other "cool" kids before they attend their graduation the next night.   

Considering that she's a first time director, Wilde acclimates herself well in terms of homogenizing BOOKSMART's tricky material.  She not only has to deliver on this genre's requisite level of crass misadventures (that most teen party films contain), but she also has to traverse some thematically sobering subplots as well, like Molly and Amy's staunch feminism and the latter's awakening gender identity.  Then there's Molly, who finds herself troublingly attracted to the high school jock of her graduating class, which conflicts with her intellectualism.  One of the pleasures, though, of Wilde's choices here is that she never tries to aggressively make BOOKSMART a sermonizing message film that shoves its ideas and themes down our throats.  Instead, she just presents the characters - regardless of orientation and background - and lets them inhabit their story naturally and organically.  Amy's homosexuality isn't propped up and accentuated: She's basically accepted and grounded in the narrative as normally as anyone else.  The sense of carefree level of empathetic inclusion that this film maintains with its characters is one of its absolute strengths. 

But BOOKSMART does indeed embrace its outlandish silliness as a weird hybrid of SUPERBAD (the male centric teen comedy that its obviously drawing inspiration from) and AFTER HOURS.  Molly and Amy find themselves thrust into many a precarious situation throughout their shenanigans-laced evening, like being incorrectly led to one wrong party address after another, one of which includes a bizarre murder-mystery event hosted by the school's drama club, or coming in contact with - in once instance - a jittery pizza delivery man that may or may not be a serial killer.  They also hilariously encounter one of school's most eccentric personalities in Gigi (Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher's daughter), who has a ninja-like ability to show up at the most inopportune moment and throughout multiple locations Molly and Amy find themselves occupying at the drop of a dime.  BOOKSMART is also unafraid to embrace all out craziness, like in one truly wacky and inspired sequence with the girls trippy badly on drugs, passing out, and then awakening in a lurid hallucinogenic stop motion animated dream sequence where there have assumed the bodies of naked Barbie dolls.  I love it when a film just, well, bizarrely goes for it and never looks back. 

I do think, though, that Wilde does make a few rookie mistakes here and there that holds BOOKSMART back from achieving true genre greatness.  Like so many other films of its ilk, this one doesn't really have much of a plot, but instead is consisted of a series of somewhat loosely interconnected vignettes that gives the story a freewheeling sense of reckless abandon, but sometimes not editorial discipline.  Speaking of editing and style, Wilde certainly gives BOOKSMART a snazzy energy, and Jamie Gross's rapid fire editing accentuates the film's unconventional rhythm.  Yet, there are moments throughout the film where it simply felt a bit too stylistically hyper-caffeinated for its own good, and some of the constant stream of music cues and beats perhaps over-telegraphed many dramatic and comedic scenes.  Aesthetically, I would have appreciated a less-is-more approach to the material at times.  

Still, Wilde certainly makes a strong claim here for being a filmmaker to watch out for moving forward, and BOOKSMART affectionately, sincerely, and frequently hilariously captures the insular world of high school friendship and ultra tight sisterhood and the challenges of being unpopular when pursuing academic excellence.  It belongs on a short and recent list of good to superb female focused films about teenagers, like the underrated BLOCKERS and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN to the Oscar nominated LADY BIRD and EIGHTH GRADE.  And we desperately need more films of this class. 

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