I don’t think that Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) — the lovable weird-girl protagonists of Booksmart — would begrudge me for giving Olivia Wilde’s equally lovable, weird debut feature a solid B+. Although I imagine they might have chased me down and tried to argue for those extra points before their enlightening adventure on the last day of their senior year, back when still saw their classmates as little more than walking grade point averages. (Yes, this one’s for all of us who secretly felt bitter when we thought that Lady Bird got into NYU with those grades, and were relieved when Greta Gerwig revealed it was actually the New School.)
After all, when we first meet the pair of classic teacher’s pets, they’re content with their place in their high school’s social hierarchy. They may not have been at the center of weekend parties — or even invited to begin with — but their years of hard work have paid off, and they’ll soon be bound for their dream colleges on the East Coast. They may also be a bit smug about their achievements, so their world is rocked when they discover that some of their wilder classmates have somehow managed to make it into the Ivies, too. Thus, they set off on a quest to let loose and finally live a little the night before their high school graduation. Clad in matching jumpsuits, they hop in a Lyft piloted by their slightly embarrassed principal (Jason Sudeikis in an excellent small role), determined to find the raging party they’ve been seeing all over social media.
What happens next is pretty standard fare, at least where general plot points are concerned, but it’s the texture and heart Wilde and her actors bring to the proceedings that elevate it into the upper echelon of shaggy teen hangout comedies. I’d actually bypass the obvious Superbad comparisons and bring Dazed and Confused — another film that preaches the virtues of slackerdom to uptight AP students — into the conversation. Yes, there are gross-out gags, bodily fluids, drugs, and lengthy conversations about masturbation (this is high school, after all), but like its main characters, Booksmart never loses its winning core tenderness. Instead of the gay jokes, casual racism, and stereotypes that plague so many mainstream comedies past (and, sadly, present), Wilde and writers Emily Halpern, Susanna Fogel, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman have crafted a vision of high school that feels true to the more progressive generation the film’s characters are actually part of. Even our protagonists’ classmates — especially the ones who would have been coded as out-and-out mean or irredeemably stupid in a lesser film — have hidden (and delightful) layers.
Molly and Amy have insecurities like every other kid their age, but in showing that female friendships can be transformative and actually help affirm one’s self-worth and self-image rather than tearing it down, Wilde and her collaborators have done something extraordinary and worthy of praise. It’s also nice to see the script bypass the expected coming-out narrative. In Booksmart, Amy has actually already been out (and proud) for two years, and she has parents and friends who support her. Her struggles with dating are more due to her own awkwardness and the conundrum many a queer teen — and adult, if we’re being honest in this safe space — has had when crushing hard in 2019 (namely, does the fact that my crush wore a polo shirt to the prom mean she’s gay, or was that just her gender performance?).
Actually, as I read through my own thoughts on the film, I’d actually like to self-edit and bump up my initial assessment to an A-, given the excellent display of spirit on the part of all involved. No office-hours groveling required.