We have to be honest with you. We struggled a bit with writing this review.
Not because Booksmart is a film about two Gen-Z girls on the last day of high school, making its setting and protagonists fairly far away from our own experiences. Not because its depiction of high school social practices is, in its own way, revolutionary. Not because the film is rather sweetly low-stakes and dispenses with any conflicts swiftly and with a sort of laser-like narrative precision. No, we struggled with writing this review because we don’t know how to say what we’re about to say about its director Olivia Wilde without sounding a little … well, condescending, we suppose.
We could dance around this some more but we figure it’s best to just come right out with it. We were shocked by the insane level of confidence, technical skill and obvious love of film-making displayed by Wilde in this, her directorial debut. We walked out of the theater repeating “Olivia Wilde!” over and over again in disbelieving wonderment. Not because she’s a woman or, in the outdated terms of her profession, a “leading lady,” but because Booksmart is so good that it may actually go down as one of the best teen comedy films of all time. Olivia Wilde didn’t just make a great movie for her directorial debut; she made an instant classic. Often, when an actor tries their hand at directing, even if the first attempt out of the gate is a good one, it tends to have a bit of a ponderousness to it as the former performer switches roles and moves behind the camera to serve as auteur. As good as it was (and it was very good), Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born suffered a bit from this; a sort of earnestly offered series of checked film-making boxes to show that the former performer understands more than just performing.
Maybe, in Wilde’s case, the fact that she does no performing at all in this film is what helped her make it so confidently, but we don’t think that quite explains it. By the time we reached the end of Booksmart it seemed an inescapable conclusion to us that Olivia Wilde is, quite simply, an excellent director. She delivered a truly smart, funny, original, freshened-up take on classic teen comedy tropes that felt modern, timely and somewhat pointed in what it depicts and chooses not to depict. You have your joyriding. You have your drug-taking and alcohol-imbibing. You have the pursuit of long-time crushes and the desire to lose one’s virginity. You have epic parties and creepy losers. You have popular kids, cool kids, nerd kids, gay kids and badass kids. It’s all there, but none of it feels like it’s a list of items to be checked off. What you don’t have is lead characters with serious self-confidence issues (a revelation) or side characters who serve as teen archetypes, easily mocked and shot down. There’s no prom queen here. There’s no super-jock. The gay kids are hilarious or hot and give no fucks. The hot girls are multi-dimensional and not one of them comes off anything less than extremely intelligent. Even the doofus hot guys and stoners come off likable and non-threatening. We are not at all the people to turn to for opinions as to whether this is an accurate portrayal of high school life in 2019, but just five minutes of this film is packed with more wit, savvy and relatable human emotions than an entire season of Riverdale, which isn’t exactly an accurate depiction of teen life either.
Leads Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever make pure star turns here, especially Feldstein, whose open, wide-eyed, and almost cartoonishly expressive face is adored by the camera and who possesses a bend-the-light-toward-her charisma. Dever offers what seemed to us to be the most charming, relatable, fumbling teen queer girl character we’ve ever seen on film; smart, sarcastic as hell, goofy, and hornily (it’s a word now) stumbling toward a first-time expression of her sexuality. The film is anchored both by the hilarity of their performances and the charm of their intensely supportive friendship as two nerdy girls who mistakenly thought they were smarter than everyone else.
Delightfully, Booksmart is something of an ode to the beauty of youth; the silliness and risk-taking, the joyful inexperience that leads to not-so-joyful mistakes, the lack of rigidity in thinking and practice. Maybe it’s a fantasy, but none of the kids in this movie are truly mean or truly dumb or even truly all that weird. Typical of high school social norms, everyone is misunderstood on some level, but not in a cheesy Breakfast Club kind of way. It’s much more subtle than that. Booksmart clearly doesn’t want to be Mean Girls or Clueless or even Lady Bird. It has no interest in portraying either its protagonists or their contemporaries as people with serious problems or notable personality deficits. Everyone is largely likable, even as the film explores the social conventions of high school cliques and how teenagers can often be cruelly dismissive of each other, if not downright self-absorbed. Even as both girls get their romantic dreams shattered and then reassembled into something new and unexpected for both of them, it never treats their heartbreakers as anything but horny teenagers oblivious to their own hotness and its effect on others. The result of this deeply humanistic and empathetic view of teenagers is a film about them that pretty much completely avoids any of the cliches and signals clearly to the audience that, no matter their age, they won’t be sitting through this high school film tensing up or reliving past social traumas. It’s a film that has no time or interest in portraying that collection of tropes. Not when it can show a group of smart, funny, confident teenagers stumbling their way out into the world, filled with bravado and bonded in that supremely intense way that teenagers can often be.
Booksmart is one of the funniest films we’ve seen all year, easily one of the funniest teen comedies of all time, and a stunning debut for its director. We can’t recommend it enough.
[Photo Credit: Annapurna Pictures]