Review: Booksmart (2019)

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, is a stellar tale of two intelligent best friends who realize on the eve of high school graduation that the kids they derided for having fun actually ended up getting into the same schools. Taking this information as a wake-up call, the two end up on a journey of identity and self-discovery.

Booksmart stays tightly focused, largely set over a single night as Amy and Molly desperately search for the party hosted by the most popular kid in school. In some sort of Gatsby-inspired curse, they wander from wrong location to wrong location, hitting all the other parties by mistake.

A film like this rides on the essence of its characters; each of these parties is imbued with how the host (sometimes wrongly) views their own image – much of this movie finds characters having to take a hard look in the mirror as they realize no one they’ve grown up with really knows them, at least not in the way they’ve come to know themselves.

What is the self, anyway? True to life, those characters who aren’t questioning this seem assured of their own standing – but most are lost in a game of identity, grandstanding with a certain image to hide the uncertainty bubbling beneath.

Being a proper take on the high school experience, Booksmart is in many ways crass – this is a comedy of drugs, lust, and cringe-inducing awkwardness. However, none of these jokes operate at the expense of the characters; if they appear to be, it’s only so the film can later come back and question why. A movie like this can only reach such heights with a certain level of sincerity that Wilde delivers with grace.

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are phenomenal as these two best friends. The movie expertly starts us off by giving these two some alone time, engaging in an intentional bout of awkward dancing. Amy and Molly are dorks, but they’re dorks with an awareness and appreciation of that fact. It’s only in the presence of others that they fold and put up visible barriers.

This quality stretches well beyond the leads; this is a rare story that fleshes out nearly every character it introduces. The standout here is Billie Lourd as Gigi, the depressive rich girl who just keeps popping up, an almost mystical figure that adds to that bizarre sense there’s some outside presence guiding the girls through this night. We meet Jared, the other rich kid who hands out shirts with his own face printed on the front, comically pathetic until it becomes understood as ignorant desperation. Most of the characters get some sort of arc, revealing something way beyond our tainted first impression – the whole film glides by, eventually jumping between characters as it nears the climax.

This movie is going to be compared to Lady Bird for obvious reasons, both covering the feeling of high school graduation and also featuring Beanie Feldstein in a prominent role – but the film I kept drawing comparisons with is Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Beyond being tales of awkward school life, both films really understand the power of sound.

Where Eighth Grade would seamlessly blend montage through ambience, Booksmart backs its best scenes with an equally stellar soundtrack. A scene that follows Amy through a pool becomes mesmerizing with the assistance of Perfume Genius’s achingly beautiful “Slip Away,” while LCD Soundsystem’s gently longing “Oh Baby” helps wind down the eventful night. These choices are so precise – and the film is smart enough to hit an emotional height during a key scene by reducing sound altogether.

Like Eighth Grade, Booksmart pushes beyond simple humor and acts as a constant reminder of the dread that underlines growing up in a community where you know the same group of people for years, and despite all that time together, no one really sees you. This carries the same sort of awkward humor that drives the most brutal cringe comedies, but by showing the characters as at least somewhat aware of their flaws, this awkwardness is marked with a certain anxiety. Teenage awkwardness is understood by this film as largely rooted in kids trying and failing to present the image they want to be seen with.

Booksmart should go down as one of the all-time great high school comedies, one that balances a hysterical script with truly meaningful observations. This film is a celebration of those early academic years, not by idealizing youth but by acknowledging how wonderful it is that we manage to carry through such adversity and come out with a better sense of self. Like the characters it studies, Booksmart is a film of several layers, one that masterfully merges teen antics with self-aware statements about why teenagers perform the way they do.

5 Stars Out of 5

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