There’s a moment in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, Booksmart, which hits theaters Friday, in which the coming-of-age film comes alive. Not even five minutes in, Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy pulls up to the home of Beanie Feldstein’s Molly. It’s their last day of high school before the BFFs go off to college and they’re ready to celebrate it in style — by way of an impromptu dance-off, as no music plays. It’s a laugh out loud moment that foreshadows the joyously good time that Booksmart is and it’s all you really need to know about a film that surely will help redefine the young adult comedy.
The hour and forty-two minute picture follows these two friends on the eve of their high school graduation. Both academic heavyweights, they’re poised to attend top universities (Yale and Columbia), something they’re keeping close to the chest as not to shame their presumably less gifted classmates. But once they realize they ignored the no. 1 rule of school — work hard, play harder — they vow to cram four years of fun into one night.
Dever and Feldstein lead a cast of budding young Hollywood stars who play their schoolmates (including Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Eduardo Franco, and Austin Crute). Meanwhile Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Forte play some of the adults in their lives.
Off the bat, Booksmart has already been likened to a female-led Superbad, the 2007 comedy also about two high school seniors looking to garner glory before graduation, which stars Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (who, ironically, is Feldstein’s brother). While the latter left much to be desired for me, it’s credited with helping to redefine a generation of school-set pictures. Even Variety gave Superbad the honor of being the bar to which Booksmart is compared, saying the latter gives the former “a run for its money.” But such a comparison — though perhaps motivated in part by nostalgia — is a true disservice to the masterpiece that is Booksmart.
Feldstein, who you’ll remember from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017), is an unstoppable force. And her palpable chemistry with Dever is what great onscreen friendships are made of, reminding viewers of both their Good Judys and those once-in-a-lifetime nights of debauchery and foolishness. Together, they take a worthy script — even though it has four credited writers, a usual sign that it went through a number of iterations on its way to the big screen — full of intellectually superior humor and make it their bitch, deftly delivering line after line, gag after gag with the expertise of someone far beyond their years.
And where this film could’ve become a too-on-the-nose time capsule of a “woke,” post-millennial generation — by having Dever’s character be lesbian, being effortlessly diverse, including incessant commentary on gender norms, and ensuring it necessarily rebuffs tired stereotypes — Booksmart sees the condescending criticism five miles away. It instead is a work to be studied in film schools for years to come for how it authentically captures the angst of young adulthood, the challenges of friendship, and the never-ending desire to be liked.
I must also take a moment to highlight that the depiction of queer female sexuality, punctuated by a hilarious scene with the lead characters watching lesbian porn, is not only refreshing, but deeply informed by the initial general uncertainty of how queer people — in the case queer women — have sex. As someone who longs for sex education and sex scenes of all stripes to reflect such hella relatable awkwardness and clunkiness, Booksmart answered my prayers.
A friend of mine, fellow entertainment journalist Jarrett Hill, mentioned that when he first saw the film, it reminded him of the cultural titan that is Amy Heckerling’s 1995 teen romance classic, Clueless. I’d echo that sentiment, noting that Booksmart is a great, necessary addition to the young adult cinematic canon that John Hughes perfected, and credit must be given to actress-turned-director Wilde.
To be honest, I’m still unsure how a first-timer included a gorgeous underwater moving portrait, hyperrealistic dance number, and a stop motion doll scene all in the same film, but it all weaves together with a pleasing energy that continually draws you in. Wilde is easily one to watch, and if Booksmart is any proof, we’ll be watching and laughing for a long time to come.