What were you like in high school? Cool and popular, a jock, a nerd? We all have our own experiences and horror stories from those days, but rarely can a film capture the emotions behind all of them. The brilliance of Booksmart, the feature length directorial debut from actress and activist Olivia Wilde, lies in its universal appeal. What we’re seeing on screen might be specific for the two leads (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Fieldstein, in breakout performances), but every single one of us can relate to their wild adventures – no matter how specific the pop culture references are.
It’s the last day of high school, and our graduates Amy and Molly (Dever and Fieldstein, respectively) are on the top of their class academically. They’ve spent four long years studying hard and getting all As, but their social lives are severely lacking. The two are equally lame and pretentious, which has separated them from the rest of their class. It’s bad enough that they don’t get along with their schoolmates, but when they realize that the same people they’ve been looking down on for four years managed to have a social life *and* get accepted into prestigious schools, it sets off an existential crisis for the two girls. Now, with only one night of school left before graduation, they’re determined to break every rule in the book and have some fun. A party hosted by one of the popular kids may be exactly what they need.
Booksmart is one of the rarest beasts in the world of film: a comedy that excels due to both the actors and the production values. Dever and Fieldstein are pure gold, lighting up the screen with their comedic chops and chemistry. There’s not a minute that goes by without a laugh, due to their commitment and the excellent script. They’re also surrounded by a excellent supporting cast, who each manage to steal the show in small, uproariously funny ways. Billie Lourd’s performance as a psychotic cokehead; Skyler Gisondo’s performance as a spoiled rich kid; all the way down to Lisa Kudrow’s and Will Forte’s cameos as Amy’s loving parents; every member of the cast gives the audience a barrel of gut-busting laughs.
Wilde is no slack when it comes to directing, either. She’s a pro at getting these performances out of her actors, and keeps the film speeding along, bringing both the laughs and the heartbreak at the right moments. It’s also mostly set over the course of one night, leading to a great amount of beautiful night-time lighting and eye-candy colors, thanks to DP Jason McCormick. The soundtrack is also exceptional at setting the mood for each scene, spanning from Death Grips to Lizzo. Booksmart, alongside it’s comedic moments, is surprisingly emotional at times, and wears it heart on its sleeve.
Had the film leaned too hard in either direction of too much comedy or too much emotion, it could’ve been underwhelming, but Olivia Wilde easily overcame that challenge and has premiered as a director with a loud, earth-shattering bang. It’s rare that a debut film be as fully-formed as this razor-sharp gem, but thank God for Booksmart. It’s a film that is both a brilliant and wickedly funny explosion of creativity, and a deeply felt love letter to those hazy days between the end of high school and the start of the last summer before the frightening new world of college.
Booksmart will open in theatres on May 24th.