'Booksmart': Film Review | SXSW 2019
Olivia Wilde's fantastic feature debut sends two overachieving high school students on an epic night of bad behavior right before graduation.
From Bridesmaids to Trainwreck to Blockers, SXSW has made a habit of premiering big, commercial rebuttals to the idiotic refrain that "women aren't funny." But you don't have to be an absolutist about representation to wonder what these movies would look like if they weren't just about women and girls but by them. The answer arrives with swagger in Booksmart, a hilarious, blazingly paced teen comedy that also happens to mark the feature directing debut of Olivia Wilde. As raucous as Superbad and more colorfully stocked with underexposed talent (thanks to the brilliant eye of casting director Allison Jones, who, come to think of it, cast Superbad as well), this film shares that one's basic premise — two shy high school besties try to make some memories on one wild night — but is its own creature, one whose peripheral characters are full of surprises.
Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever (Beautiful Boy) are Molly and Amy, constant companions who constitute a world unto themselves in a school full of vibrant idiots. Only, they're not idiots: Molly, the valedictorian who has denied herself all kinds of ordinary fun while prepping to be the Supreme Court's youngest justice ever, is in the midst of putting some insensitive classmates in their place when she learns that, despite all their partying and slacking, they're also headed to elite colleges or great jobs after graduation.
"They did two things," she tells Amy incredulously — meaning learning and partying — while "we're the assholes who only did one." The night before graduation is a little late for a reinvention, but the girls decide to try, going to a party hosted by the senior class' girl-magnet vice president, Nick (Mason Gooding). Amy is a hard sell when it comes to trying new things, but Molly has a secret weapon: Amy has been out for two years and still hasn't kissed a girl; Ryan, the buoyant and androgynous skate girl for whom Amy pines, will be at the party. (Cue jokes about Amy's ignorance of what lesbians actually do, and about her eagerness to find out.) The only trick is, the girls have avoided these cool kids for the last four years, and have no idea where Nick's party is being held. Let the odyssey begin.
The four credited screenwriters, all women, bounce our heroines from one weirdly memorable party to the next in search of the big one, each new setting allowing us to get acquainted with characters who, in the pic's overwhelmingly colorful opening scenes, looked like one-note gags. (We also see more of Wilde's big-name cameo buddies, especially Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams.) Most intriguing are the school's two super-rich kids, Gigi (Billie Lourd) and Jared (Skyler Gisondo): The latter has spent years trying to buy the affection of schoolmates who can't stand him, while Gigi is something stranger. Latching on to Amy as her new best friend, she becomes ubiquitous, popping up bizarrely wherever the night takes us. She also doses the girls with a hallucinogen (call it "Asianhuasca"), allowing the film to deliver a trippily funny sequence without forcing its protagonists to do something so against their better judgment.
Well, to do that thing that's against their better judgment. Many inhibitions are tossed to the wind here, sometimes in pursuit of love and sometimes just for fun. Dever and Feldstein make a charismatic comic team, sometimes breaking into empowering duels of escalating compliments that recall the happiest moments between Abbi and Ilana on Broad City. But the film allows each character some time for solo exploration, to find amorous possibilities in surprising places and to discover how much their cooler peers wish they hadn't waited for the end of high school to come out and play.
These calmer solo adventures, a respite from the fast-paced hilarity that starts the film, give us a chance to notice how well Wilde is handling the material — especially when it comes to the highs and lows Amy experiences at the evening's last destination. Anyone who has been suddenly alone in a crowd will get a rush of sense memory here; happily, moments of lonely panic aren't the end of the road.
However fresh its specifics and delivery, Booksmart's message is as old as teen comedies: Friendships are the most important things we have, even when their survival beyond high school isn't guaranteed. That's a lesson best learned outside of books — preferably while doing something you never thought you'd be brave enough to try.
Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Headliners)
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Gloria Sanchez Productions
Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Victoria Ruesga, Eduardo Franco, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte
Director: Olivia Wilde
Screenwriters: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Producers: Megan Ellison, Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Katie Silberman
Executive producers: Adam McKay, Will Ferrell, Jillian Longnecker, Scott Robertson
Director of photography: Jason McCormick
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: April Napier
Editor: Jamie Gross
Casting director: Allison Jones