1 Hr., 45 Mins.
Booksmart May 30, 2019
ick (Mason Gooding) is having a party at his aunt’s house the night before high-school graduation. For most of his classmates, it’s just another weekend hangout, only a little more sentimental. But for Molly and Amy (Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever), the heroines of the exceptional Booksmart (2019), it’s a can’t-miss event. Exactly why is complicated. The girls, who have been best friends since they were
youngsters, made a pact before starting high school to focus on academics in order to get into good colleges. They have become, essentially, the other’s only friend. (Though they get along so well with Ms. Fine, their cool, Jessica Williams-portrayed English teacher who can do a crossword in less than eight minutes, that they at one point in the movie call her in an emergency.) They never go out. Their classmates consider them overly serious teacher’s pets.
By the end of senior year, they’ve come to believe the sacrifice was worth it. Molly is going to Yale, with dreams of one day serving as the youngest Supreme-Court justice; Amy is going to Botswana for the summer to help locals make tampons, then heading to Columbia.
But shortly into the movie, Amy and Molly discover that they might have made a mistake. Their classmates, the majority of whom they’ve labeled as slackers, reveal that they, too, are getting into Ivy Leagues. “We just don’t only care about school,” the school’s Hester Prynne, Annabelle (Molly Gordon), says to Molly in the bathroom one afternoon. Within the first few moments of Booksmart, then, it’s been decided: Molly and Amy are going to pack all the good times they’ve missed out on into a single night. “We are not one-dimensional,” Molly says frantically. “We are smart and fun.”
A night to remember it will be. Of course, since this is a day-in-the-life sort of high-school movie — like the night-after-graduation feature Dazed and Confused (1993) or the day-before-college-starts films American Graffiti (1973) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) — that means it won’t consist purely of walking and talking. There will be lots of long, funny pit stops and goofy characters to run into. Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, who wrote the script, embed the trope into the script so seamlessly it’s almost inconspicuous. The girls have no idea where the party house is — all they know is that Nick’s aunt is somewhere lost at sea, shitting in a bucket, on an off-the-radar cruise ship, leaving it vacant — which entails wacky scenarios in spades on the way there. There’s a murder mystery dinner, a botched stick-up at a pizza place, and even a sequence I won’t get into where Molly and Amy turn into anthropomorphic Barbie dolls and admire their smoothed-out, cartoonishly buxom bodies.
The comic sequences are executed swimmingly, both because the screenplay is energetically funny, even buddy coppish, and because it’s so fun to watch Feldstein and Dever, two Tracy Flicks with great chemistry in a world full of supposed Paul Metzlers, try navigating the wild terrain that is the loosely planned night out. The supporting players are lovable, too. A spunkily dressed and mannered party girl who seems to appear exclusively in puffs of smoke (Billie Lourd), a sad-little-rich boy who listens to Sheryl Sanders audiobooks in his pimped-out muscle car (Skyler Gisondo), keyed-up theater geeks (Noah Galvin, Austin Crute), and other walk-on characters made me laugh loudly and often. So did Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte, who appear for just a second as Amy’s parents and star in two of the feature’s funniest gag sequences. “We’re being robbed by supermodels!” Dad exclaims in one of them just before Amy and Molly attempt to sneak out.
In his review of Booksmart for The Atlantic, the critic David Sims positively compared the film to classics like Superbad (2007) (in which Feinstein’s older brother, Jonah Hill, starred) and the aforementioned American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. “These movies are responsible for my deep appreciation for movies, music, and weed," Booksmart’s director, the actress Olivia Wilde, who is making her filmmaking debut here, responded on Twitter. “So this is major.” You can feel the personal connection to these movies, and which parts of them stuck out to Wilde, in Booksmart. The care is palpable. It’s shot, first of all, like all these films, with special attention to composition, framing, and accompanying music; not a detail seems accidental. Visually and sonically lyrical beats, like a euphoric scene where Amy slithers at the bottom of Nick’s pool like a sea snake as Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away” plays, or another where a camarilla of teens sing enthusiastically to Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughtta Know” in a neon-soaked karaoke room, pop up regularly. Heart is pronounced in the script penned by that fabulous four, but in Wilde’s direction can you sense what her favorite high-school movies meant to her, and what she might want this movie to be for Generation Z.
Booksmart, akin to other recent high-school films like Lady Bird (2017) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Blockers, both from 2018, detours from teen films of the yesteryear. There is now more of a prominent interest than ever in featuring characters of diverse ethnicities and sexualities; romance feels ancillary rather than binding. (The movie, though, is less concerned with the very-real class divide that in no doubt has a big impact on the main premise — something I won’t delve into here but is more indulged by a recent Buzzfeed article from the critic Alison Willmore.) Booksmart continues the modernization process. It flips the script on the two-inexperienced-dudes-causing-uncharacteristic-mayhem cliché; Amy is a lesbian, and is the character who gets the climactic makeout scene; and it envisions a high school rife with disparate identities, and ones which are never made the punchline.
The comedy in the movie is buoyant and broadly slapstick, but it’s also compassionate and careful — something that allows its more serious moments, like a scene where Molly and Amy break up for about three seconds, or the finale, which seems like it’s going to end up all teary but has a last-minute, big-hearted twist, to fly. When Booksmart premiered at South by Southwest in March, and as it’s gotten more buzz in the following months, it’s been so enthusiastically praised as a new subgenre definitive that I worried, going in, that maybe all the acclaim was a little hyperbolic. But watching Booksmart, and writing this review now, a couple of age-old praises came to mind: that it would have been nice to have this movie around when I was in high school; that this is the kind of film you picture future kids watching at sleepovers or on a lonely weekend night for a pick-me-up. The movie was crushed in theaters recently by the live-action remake of 1992’s Aladdin. But I suspect that years from now, people hungry to relive misadventures in Agrabah are going to move toward the ones featuring the voice of Robin Williams, anyway. Booksmart, which is so quotable and instills in us a need to relive it once it’s finished, is destined for a kind of cult appreciation more meaningful than opening-weekend stats. A