Man, there have been a lot of teen flicks recently haven’t there? Not that I’m complaining, as it’s a genre of film that I’ve grown very fond of. But what there hasn’t been as much of recently is outright comedies directed at and focused on teenagers. In this film, the helm is taken by Olivia Wilde, a talented actress who is unfortunately more known for her beauty and being in some mediocre comedies/blockbusters than for anything more noteworthy, but based on the quality of this movie I’d say she has almost totally reinvented herself as a very promising director. Booksmart is a gem.
Best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are on the last day of High School and are planning to have a small get together, whilst every other kid is having a gigantic party to celebrate. Molly realises that she has spent no time on having fun in High School and all time on being a Valedictorian focused on getting good grades, so she and Amy decide to go to a party in order to become more popular among the rest of their classmates.
This film is hilarious. Really hilarious. Like, no film this year or in the past few years has made me laugh as consistently as this one did. Almost every joke lands and there is so much variety that it never gets repetitive or boring. Despite the script’s somewhat episodic structure and the 4 credited writers, what is remarkable is how well the comic setpieces all flow together. Each one is fantastic and none of them feel extraneous, as the film is reliant on them for character and storytelling.
Whilst I expected the film to shirk the dramatic character elements in favour of the comedic antics, the script surprisingly does not. Both Amy and Molly are well defined and engaging characters and their relationship is the second driving force of the narrative. Every character, even the minor ones, feels fleshed out and 3 dimensional. The drama that is incorporated later also manages to be effective and suitable to the prior characterisation. Adding to this is the portrayal of Amy’s lesbianism, that is very well handled and leads to a realistic sex scene that is the opposite of pornographic. On the whole, what makes the story work is how wholesome it is, as none of the characters are dislikeable and the story never shames or mocks anyone for laughs.
It would be easy to praise Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as the reason why the movie works as well as it does, but the film thankfully does not rely on them to carry the material. Most bad modern comedies make the mistake of thinking that the actors are so talented that they can just improvise their way through weak material or naturally prop it up. Even though there are a few moments that fall into ab-libbing, for the most part the actors take already strong material and make it work. But make no mistake, Feldstein and Dever are both great, with Dever being surprisingly funny given her almost exclusive work in drama and Feldstein showing great potential as a leading actress. The supporting cast are also exceptional, with Billie Lourd as an eccentric classmate being a scene stealer.
But what really cements Booksmart as being excellent is Olivia Wilde’s direction. Despite this being her debut, she has an amazing grasp on the essential aspects of filmmaking, managing to even incorporate a drug trip sequence and make it feel original. The cinematography is not bland like a lot of comedies, and the editing is probably the best that I have seen in a long time. The pacing is so tight and fast that it is relentlessly entertaining and when it gets dramatic, Wilde knows how to slow down and milk the drama for all it’s worth, with a couple of standout long takes. The only time the editing falters a bit is during the final 20 minutes, as the film seems to run a bit longer than it should. Also, the soundtrack sometimes overpowers the dialogue early on. Overall, Wilde has managed to create the Dunkirk or Mad Max: Fury Road of comedies, with Booksmart being similar to both in how much of a pure experience it is.
Booksmart is one of the best high school comedies of the 21st century. If it wasn’t for some of the minor issues, I’d be willing to call this a comedic masterpiece. But as it stands, it’s one of the best times I’ve had at the cinema lately. If this movie ends its box office run as a bomb, then I will be very disappointed in everyone.