“Booksmart,” the directorial debut for actress Olivia Wilde, has so much going for it that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Wilde has crafted a coming-of-age film for the ages that’s anchored by two fantastic lead performances from Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein and a rich and deep supporting cast that includes Carrie Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd.
It’s John Hughes meets “Superbad” meets “Dazed and Confused” – a smart and funny experience that’s one of my favorite films of 2019.
Dever and Feldstein play Amy and Molly, two academic overachievers about to graduate from high school. Amy (Dever) is going on a trip to Botswana before heading to Columbia, and class president Molly (Feldstein) is bound for Yale – with their futures completely mapped out.
As the friends are about to celebrate the end of high school, Molly learns that fellow classmates who partied for four years – including the school’s most popular male, Nick (Mason Gooding) – are also headed to the same elite schools that they worked so hard to get into.
Molly decides they should make up for lost time and try to cram in as much fun in one night as possible, setting the duo on a quest to find the party Nick is throwing at his aunt’s house and prove to everyone that they can be just as wild and carefree as their peers.
Working from a script credited to four writers (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman), Wilde’s film has a lot of familiar elements in other coming-of-age comedies but also has enough fresh wrinkles to keep it interesting and highly entertaining. The film is very funny, but it also has a humanistic touch that gives “Booksmart” an unexpected emotional punch in the final act.
It helps that Devers and Feldstein’s chemistry is off the charts. You really believe these two have been lifelong friends from the first time they are on screen. Even when the friendship hits a few bumps, their disagreements feel fully organic and realistic.
Wilde’s background as an actress clearly shows in her care for fleshing out Amy and Molly and allowing the young co-stars to shine, but even the supporting cast feels fleshed out with almost everyone allowed to get the spotlight as much as the two leads.
Gooding, Skyler Gisondo and Molly Gordon are among the classmates who get some standout moments. Jason Sudeikis (as the school’s principal) and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte (as Amy’s overly supportive parents) shine as well.
But Lourd nearly steals the film from her two talented leads. She plays Gigi, a slightly eccentric classmate who keeps popping up in every adventure the girls partake during the night.
Her aloofness brings some of the film’s biggest laughs and also is a perfect example why “Booksmart” works so well. This may be a film about Molly and Amy, but it’s about the people around them as well with attention to detail that’s sometimes overlooked in this genre.
It’s that depth that puts “Booksmart” right up the head of the class when it comes to high school comedies with characters I wouldn’t mind revisiting again.