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SXSW 2019: Booksmart Review

Wickedly funny and adventurous – and a jaw-dropping directorial debut for Olivia Wilde.

I don’t know about you guys, but I was a slacker in high school. I worked just hard enough to get into one of the top schools in the state, and summarily coasted from there. That’s not the case for the two best friends at the center of Booksmart: Molly and Amy — they’ve gotten every grade, skipped any sense of danger, forbidden themselves from parties or ever breaking the rules. Well, except for the fake College ID’s they use to sneak into the library. But the friendship at the center of director Olivia Wilde‘s feature directorial debut Booksmart, is explored with the same frivolity and raucousness behind Superbad and Animal House, with the same tenderness and empathy for the misunderstood and the uncool as a John Hughes film, with a comparable modern soundtrack and score as Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, to create an endearing teen break-up and coming-of-age film rolled into one. In short, Olivia Wilde absolutely murders the material for an uproarious and audacious debut.

The films opens with Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), both dancing outside of Amy’s Volvo. The two have been close friends throughout high school (and before), but this is the last day before they graduate. Molly is on her way to Yale, Amy is going to Botswana. Both outsiders, they spent more time studying than partying – and now they’ve found that the slackers they looked down upon are attending the same or better schools as them. What follows is a careening night trying to track down a party, THE PARTY, where they can set the record straight and not regret high school.

Wilde’s film, with the help of screenwriters Katie Silberman, Sarah Haskins, Emily Halpern, and Susanna Fogel, paints a collage of high school characters comparable to Superbad and Animal House. There’s the jock, the skater girl, the theater kids, the stoner, and the faintingly uncool. There’s also rich diversity. One lead is queer while the other is curvy, and each supporting character is more than their trope describes (to a point).

Booksmart is also blisteringly funny: featuring jokes on drugs, masturbation, and sex — and audacious. Plenty have done high school comedies, but those feel safe compared to Wilde’s adventurous film. Because while Booksmart features needle drop after needle drop to bob your head along to, it also has an out of nowhere drug sequence where characters turn into toy dolls (it’ll make sense to you when you see the film… or not). For a first time feature director to put that sequence into their teen dramedy, demonstrates Wilde’s unbridled potential.

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The fantastic material is only elevated by the wonderful acting performances at its center. Kaitlyn Dever, ironically, plays a great straight man to Beanie Feldstein’s frazzled second banana. The two also have an instant chemistry, nearly finishing one another’s lines while certainly wearing one another’s clothes. And while the rest of the supporting cast find their moments: Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Skyler Gisondo, Eduardo Franco, etc. — it’s Billie Lourd as Gigi who absolutely nails every scene. In this one role, she’s gone from Star Wars ensemble piece to a standout performer. There’s not a moment when she’s not on the screen as the protective spiritual druggy where you’re not wondering when she’ll return.

Still, Booksmart isn’t perfect. Wilde’s film is too reliant on stock characters. While trying to create the milieu of a modern high school ecosystem may bring the odd cliche, the supporting characters are actually very retro. For instance, the excessively gay characters, a trope that was recently lampooned in Isn’t it Romantic, features prominently here.

There are also lulls in Booksmart, as once the initial hilarity of the first 45 minutes wears off the film is left grinding its wheels before Molly and Amy finally depart on their night out.

But while the film masquerades as two teens trying to find a party, and possibly love with their respective crushes, it’s truly a break-up film. When Wilde does pull the rug out from under us, demonstrating the film’s real intentions, it’s ingeniously well shot and the sound is brilliantly edited. The result makes for an ending that feels so well earned and thrilling that you’ll want to call up your high school ex-best friend and beg them to go joy riding with you. Booksmart is a lovingly endearing piece – wickedly funny and adventurous – and a jaw-dropping directorial debut from Olivia Wilde.

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