Olivia Wilde didn’t have to go this hard — but she did. For her directorial debut, “Booksmart,” the actress-turned-director comes out swinging with not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of the best high school movies of all time.
The film has been heavily hyped. But with a stacked supporting cast, a script crackling with densely packed jokes and a bravura, awards-worthy comedic performance from star Beanie Feldstein, it lives up to the hype.
Wilde’s screen style is joyful, colorful and rhythmic. In a word, it’s exuberant, creating an intoxicating energy that brings to life the script by a crack team of female writers: the team of Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins (TV’s “Good Girls”), Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) and Katie Silberman (“Isn’t It Romantic?”).
The story is a familiar one, told with a contemporary perspective and aching specificity. Two less-than-popular teenage pals decide they want to enjoy one night of high school hedonism before graduation. Think “Can’t Hardly Wait” or “Superbad.” But this time, the girls are the subjects, not the objects.
Ruthlessly ambitious class president Molly (Feldstein, TV’s “What We Do in the Shadows”) suffers an existential crisis on the last day of school when she realizes the classmates she considered burnouts have been accepted to elite colleges, just as she has. Determined to not be the loser who only chose studying and school, she ropes her quieter, fiercely feminist, lesbian best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, TV’s “Last Man Standing”), into changing their high school narratives by going to the last big party. They just have to find it first.
Getting to the party is a wild journey involving matching jumpsuits, a megayacht, their Lyft-driving principal, a murder mystery dinner, a brief detour for archival research, an encounter with a suspected murderer and an accidental drug trip. Molly, ever the overachiever on the hunt for a “seminal fun anecdote,” earns a whole high school diploma’s worth in a single night.
“Booksmart” is deeply indebted to “Clueless,” another high school classic from a female auteur, Amy Heckerling. Molly has shades of Cher Horowitz (the lead character in that film), and “Booksmart” absolutely nails what “Clueless” did so well with a deep bench of quirky, richly written side characters that round out the high school ecosystem. Noah Galvin as a savage theater kid and Billie Lourd as a wacky rich girl are standouts, but Skyler Gisondo as indefatigable dork Jared gives the surprise breakout performance.
However, it’s the two leads that truly push this movie to the top. Feldstein’s performance can be described as virtuosic. There is a precision to her words that is breathtaking, but she can do so much with just a reaction or a longing look. The silent, wordless acting she does is incredible. Dever is a similarly gifted actress, and she communicates Amy’s awkwardness and desire with a beautiful subtlety.
“Booksmart” draws on the history and our memories of beloved teen movies while singularly challenging the genre, steamrolling outdated gender norms and heteronormativity with its brand of empowered, fluid and open-minded notions of sexuality, self and friendship. It feels familiar, but the entire moral axis and point of view has shifted to something much more modern and enlightened.
The relationship between Molly and Amy has its ups and downs, but they are friends who build each other up (in absurdly escalating compliment-offs), hold each other accountable and most important, always celebrate each other. The film is a love letter to friendship; to young women being each other’s allies, not enemies.