It's little wonder that some of the best teen films center on high school graduation. There's rich material to be mined from the forced transition, as we're kicked from the safe familiarity of grade school into a scary new world, far from the comforts of home.
That tension between being excited for a fresh start and apprehensive of a new beginning can be the source of either pathos or humor. The immensely charming "Booksmart" is a coming-of-age high school comedy had me grinning from ear to ear every second of its running time. It doesn't attempt to break the mold of teen flicks that have come before, but it's a warm, wise, and uproarious feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, two overachieving best friends about to graduate from their Los Angeles high school at the top of their class. They've spent four years keeping their eye on the academic prize, and their efforts have yielded results: Molly's earned a place at Yale while Amy plans to take a gap year in order to do humanitarian work in Botswana before continuing her studies at Columbia. They have bright futures, and that knowledge has manifested in a smug sense of superiority over their classmates.
So the girls are thrown for a loop when they learn their partying peers ended up getting into those same Ivy League schools and have post-graduation plans just as impressive as theirs. The realization that not everyone had to choose between getting good grades and having a social life sends Molly in particular into a tailspin: maybe they went about this high school thing all wrong, and they've inadvertently let the real experience pass them by.
Hoping to make up for lost time, she convinces Amy that they should crash the biggest house party in town, thrown by the most popular kid in school (Mason Gooding). Together the two girls set out on a mission to pack four years' worth of partying into one night, their final chance to say they had some fun in high school before they graduate the next day.
As Molly and Amy cut loose in ways that get themselves in over their heads, the plot of "Booksmart" follows a not unexpected trajectory, but writers Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman find ways to make it feel fresh and honest. They get that singular time when high school is for all intents and purposes over, and everyone's defensive walls seem to drop. Suddenly those self-imposed cliques don't seem as important, and there's an intermingling between individuals that results in some strange and unexpected connections being formed, if only temporarily.
Wilde builds a nice weird world for Molly and Amy to inhabit, and the script allows time for their ensemble of classmates to get their moment, from the desperate-to-be-liked billionaire's son (Skyler Gisondo) to the mean girl bully (Diana Silvers) and the slightly pretentious theater gays (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute). Billie Lourd is a standout as a manic wild child who becomes the girls' expected guardian angel.
The film avoids painting anyone as villains, and even the kids who've given Amy and Molly a hard time are treated with compassion. In many cases, they have very good reason for reacting to the girls as they do.
The film has a progressive inclusivity without ever calling attention to itself: Amy is an out lesbian, and her sexuality is handled with refreshingly nonchalance. Her attempts to woo the cool skater girl (Victoria Ruesga) are treated with the same sweaty awkwardness as everyone else's romantic fumblings. She even gets a chance to experiment with sex, and I appreciated that Amy isn't relegated to the typical sexless sidekick role many LGBT characters get saddled with.
While romance enters the picture, it isn't a priority for either girl, and their main concern is to have a bit of fun together before the concerns outside school begin to compete for their attentions.
Making one of the most successful transitions behind the camera I've seen in a while, Wilde melds an indie sensibility to the potentially outlandish studio comedy premise. She works in some nice visual flourishes while never overdoing it on style, the way many first-time filmmakers might. And perhaps as a result of her experience in front of the camera, she's confident enough to let her actors take center stage.
The infectious, hard-to-fake chemistry between Feldstein and Dever is absolutely crucial to the film's success. They convey years' worth of history between them, and with their very real friendship providing the film's sweet emotional foundation, we're happy to follow them almost anywhere.
Smart, funny, and empathetic, "Booksmart" is a love letter to the blissfully uncool dorks among us. Both referential and thoroughly modern, it feels like an instant classic of the high school genre, and one that will undoubtedly be among my favorite comedies of 2019.