Updated: Feb 8, 2020
Two best friends, on the night before high school graduation, try to make up for four years of staying home or going to the library with one wild night of partying. This basic plotline has been used countless times, involving sex, drugs, alcohol and all sorts of shenanigans. The vast majority of these movies center on boys trying to look cool while possibly making inroads with the girls they like. Not so the new comedy Booksmart. It follows the misadventures of two young women, with an emphasis on their friendship and anxieties about the future. It is surprisingly sweet and smart, with endearing leads. It is also really, really funny.
Molly and Amy have spent high school focused on getting good grades so they can get into elite colleges. On the last day of school, Molly is thunderstruck by the discovery that their less studious classmates have also gotten into good colleges. They studied and had fun while Molly and Amy only studied. Molly decides they will go to the massive party being held by the most popular guy in school so everyone will know how fun they are.
Booksmart (96 minutes without the end credits) has the requisite raunchy humor, but it never sacrifices character in favor of a gag. Amy and Molly are established efficiently right at the top. As crazy as things get, their personalities, and especially their relationship, never get misplaced. The jokes, even the more outrageous ones, are consistent with what we know about them. There is a lot of heart underneath the vulgarity. That makes everything funnier.
Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are tremendously likable as Amy and Molly. Dever is charming as a shy girl afraid to put herself out there with the girl she has a crush on. Feldstein’s Molly is bossy and outwardly sure of herself, but feels she has to be that way to get ahead in life. Their insecurities are relatable, making them both very easy to root for.
The supporting roles are filled with people who can get a laugh and enhance the story’s themes in a short period of time. There is Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s loving, if clueless, parents, Jason Sudeikis as the school principal, Jessica Williams as the girls’ favorite teacher and Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo as two of their more eccentric classmates. Every single one of them, including others I did not mention, deliver exactly what is needed.
An extremely important aspect in creating a successful comedy is pace. Knowing how long to stay on a gag, when to pay it off, how quickly to move the narrative forward, and how much sincerity is just the right amount are all key in setting up the timing necessary to keep the audience laughing. This is the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde. Incredibly, she nails the pacing on her first attempt. Part of that is because she leans on her characters and story, instead of relying on specific jokes. She seems to understand when to linger on a moment and when to zip through it.
That includes non-comedic sequences as well. There is a scene where Amy goes swimming that is so beautifully done, leading to a stretch of the story that says so much about who she is. There are no laughs that I can recall during this section yet, since Wilde devotes a lot of attention to her characters, it does not feel out of place. Overall, it is an impressive debut that takes on a common subgenre in a way that does not come off as derivative. It is hilarious and insightful, with characters that are actually pretty nice, something you usually do not find in movies like this. Booksmart certainly makes me excited for whatever Olivia Wilde chooses to do next.
4 out of 5
Kaitlyn Dever as Amy
Beanie Feldstein as Molly
Skyler Gisondo as Jared
Billie Lourd as Gigi
Jason Sudeikis as Principal Brown
Diana Silvers as Hope
Jessica Williams as Ms. Fine
Molly Gordon as Triple A
Directed by Olivia Wilde
Written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman