Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have spent their high school years working hard to prepare for their success-assured futures. Translation: all work and no play. Now, it is the eve of graduation and they find out, the hard way, that the rest of their class have also been preparing, but they also made time for fun, lots of fun. Now, the pair of academic stars and social misfits must pack four years of partying into one night in “Booksmart.”
Teens getting out of control and high school graduation have been the fodder for many adolescent comedies for years – take a look at the Andy Hardy movies with Mickey Rooney in the 1930s. Olivia Wilde doffs her actor’s hat and puts on, for the first time, that of a feature film director to tell a modern parable of youth, high school and misplaced ambition – and makes it fresh and funny.
Amy and Molly, BFFs since kids, have had big ambitions – the best colleges and, after that, the best jobs. To that end, they both have strived to be top in their class and, academically at least, they have succeeded. But, all of their hard work and dedication, it seems, was for naught. Everyone else in the graduating class has had a ball and still got into good colleges.
The realization is an epiphany for Molly, who decides for both her and Amy that they are going to go to the biggest of all big blowouts – Nick’s party! Nick just so happens to be the most popular guy at school – and Molly’s secret crush. Oh, and Amy has the hots for a cute skateboarding chick named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) who will also be there. These two things set the stage for the many crazy happenings the pair experience in “Booksmart.”
At first, as the film begins, my thought was: ”Where on earth would this high school actually exist?” Soon, though, the best friend chemistry between Molly and Amy kicks in and you can sympathize with their inherent nerdiness and the sudden realization that they have been missing out – for years.
With this as the backdrop, director Wilde, with the story by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, uses the hi-jinks of the graduating class to make the often wacky teen behavior lots of fun. The goofy and amiable teen humor is a huge departure from the 1980s when misogyny and movies like “Porky’s (1981)” were the norm. This is a very good thing. I give it a B.
Actress Olivia Wilde makes a refreshing directorial debut with a smart and funny twist on the high school graduation comedy (written by “The Spy Who Dumped Me’s” Susanna Fogel and Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins of TV’s ‘Trophy Wife’). What if the school’s valedictorian and her best friend discovered they’d kept the straight and narrow through four years of school without reaping any benefits over their less academically inclined classmates? “Booksmart” may have anticipated this year’s college admissions scandal, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) horrified to learn that screwups and hard partiers have been accepted into schools like Yale and Georgetown, but it derives its humor from the class killjoys’ laser focus on letting their freak flags fly in the last possible moments of their senior year.
Molly may not be popular, but she, unlike the less aggressive Amy (“Short Term 12’s” Kaitlyn Dever), has no trouble with confrontation, or condescension for that matter. She’s overwhelmed by end-of-year euphoria, though, her attempt to review the student council budget with Principal Brown (Wilde’s partner Jason Sudeikis) punted to Senior Vice President Nick (Mason Gooding) who Molly regards as useless when she’s not secretly crushing on him. To Amy’s discomfort, Molly enjoys leading along Amy’s parents’ (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow) assumption that the best friends are in a romantic relationship, but Amy, who really is attracted to women, has to be pushed to act on her crush on skateboarder Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). Both will be surprised by the turns their lives take when their arduous road to Theo’s night-before-graduation party actually deposits them there.
Jonah Hill’s sister Beanie Feldstein, so good in supporting roles in such films as “Lady Bird,” should have no trouble with name recognition after this, so confident is her performance, her Molly a force of nature. Dever lets Amy’s similar ‘tude through in private, but her character is this couple’s follower, a dynamic that sets off a relationship explosion during the film’s climax (in one of the film’s many, many witty asides, it is Molly’s failure to honor their ‘safe word’ - Malala - that sets Amy off). Dever is saddled with one of the film’s major gross-out gags, but she’s made Amy so lovable we feel nothing but sympathy. And she gets to show off her pipes in a memorable karaoke moment.
To Wilde’s credit, though, these are not the only two who shine through in this ensemble. There is another pair of outsiders, rich kids Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Gigi (Billie Lourd), who are even spurned by Molly, at least until that long night where perceptions are upended, sometimes more than once. Gisondo is sweetly uncool, Lourd the film’s comic highlight, a master of the pratfall in Gigi’s continual state of alcoholic and pharmaceutical inebriation. These two are the film’s secret weapons. The school’s coolest teacher, Miss Fine (Jessica Williams), relates to her students a little too closely. Eduardo Franco’s Theo is the most accepting of the popular crowd. Gooding’s clowning masks a surprisingly gallant party host, until his charm is spread too thinly. Molly Gordon’s femme fatale Triple A not only acts as a plot twist, but as a mature voice of reason.
Wilde keeps everything moving at an exhilarating pace without leaving us in the dust. By the time she’s flipped Molly and Amy’s script, we’ve been on yachts, in muscle cars, swimming pools and even jail with an entire senior high school class whose last hurrah has somehow pointed their ways toward a better future.
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