The best teen comedies are films that say something specific and palpable about growing up in the particular time that they’re made, while also retaining a certain timelessness that means any teenager can watch them in any era and find something to relate to. The films of John Hughes very often hit this mark, as did George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and Bo Burnham’s recent masterpiece “Edge of Seventeen.” It’s a delicate balance to walk, and making it look easy is extremely difficult.
“Booksmart” makes it look easy.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is the kind of film teenagers and adults alike will be talking about 10 years from now and beyond, a film that crackles with the energy of growing up in the emotional minefield that is high school while also bursting at the seams with laughter. It’s both of its time and timeless, and it achieves that through sharp writing, a tremendous cast, and a delicate balance of comedic timing and emotional gut punches.
Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are lifelong best friends, united as much by their academic ambitions as their collective sense of humor. They do everything together, but with their high school graduation just a day away, all their careful planning for their futures comes grinding to a halt when Molly realizes something. Yes, they’ve always gotten good grades and managed to get into good colleges, but they did it at the expense of having social lives, while their classmates had social lives and still excelled academically. Amy is reluctant to address this issue, but Molly insists they take advantage of one last night as high schoolers and use it to party as much as possible, with a particular emphasis on a party where both of their crushes are planning to hang out.
Facing a ticking clock, with limited resources and limited knowledge as to how exactly parties go down, Amy and Molly race through a potentially life-changing night, and learn some uncomfortable truths about themselves in the process.
Yes, the “let’s make the most of the end of high school” narrative has been done countless times before, just like the unlikely high school romance and the band of teenage misfits narratives, but these plots keep recurring in the subgenre because there’s a ring of truth to them. This is particularly poignant through Amy and Molly’s lenses, because they’ve both been so careful to craft a certain narrative for themselves as teenagers. They’re the overachievers who will excel in spite of everyone, but now they’re realizing they missed a key subject – fun – and have to get remedial with it. There’s a sense of revising their own history running through the film, and the script is willing to dive headfirst into just how messy that can be. That sense of messiness, ranging from Molly’s realization all the way through to the film’s climax, lends tremendous verisimilitude to the whole story. We all think we can control our own destiny in the most clear-cut possible way as teenagers, and “Booksmart” is the story of two girls who are absolutely certain of that.
The comedy, of course, is in watching that certainty unravel, and it’s here that the cast really has to carry things. Though Amy and Molly are the stars, and Dever and Feldstein are both terrific, “Booksmart” is also an ensemble piece, covering everyone from the Drama Club Kid (Noah Galvin) to the Rich Kid (Skyler Gisondo) to the Promiscuous Girl (Molly Gordon) to the Popular Guy (Mason Gooding). Each actor knows exactly what they need to contribute to the flow of the piece, and under Wilde’s direction they all pull it off. There are no weak points in this cast, but there is one clear champion: Billie Lourd, who steals every scene she’s in as the eccentric girl who seems to appear around every corner, Gigi.
High school is a tumultuous, unpredictable mess, even for kids who think they have it all figured out. “Booksmart” is an ode that that mess, and to the kids who find that no amount of preparation can brace them for what happens when they just go out and start living life. It’s a film about how everyone, even the most composed teenager you know, is going through something heavy, and in finding a way to laugh at those things, it reminds us that we are all still learning no matter how smart we think we are. It’s a film that deserves your attention.
‘Booksmart’ is in theaters now.