The high school coming-of-age story has been done in film countless times, and yet the exploration of such an experimental age keeps providing material for filmmakers to explore. However, the stories of maturation have always been largely focused on boys, with the shift to girls coming only in recent years.
Booksmart (2019) is actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. The film follows two high school nerds Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who have been more focused on their studies than in going to parties. After realizing the imbalance of their experience they decide to go to a party on their last day of school.
The film reminded me of the Jonah Hill-Michael Cera modern classic Superbad (2007) in its structure of dealing with insecure characters trying to find comfort in a big social setting (curiously Beanie Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s sister). Much like that film Booksmart is structured in the characters’ journey to the party, with the crux of their interaction and development occurring on the way. The structure of a journey to signify the growth of characters is an easy one to use, but Wilde has managed to use this cliched trope to enhance the richness of the story instead.
Wilde proves to be incredibly adept at crafting scenes with rapid and overlapping dialogue, adding to the sense of realism as well as cramming in laughs and keeping a fast rhythm in the story. Booksmart is able to keep you engaged and the story moving along with a smooth and steady beat that never once has you looking at your watch. Wilde, however, is still able to delve into the quieter and pensive moments of the script, contrasting the high school experience of girls in a very manner-of-fact way with the excessively male entries of the past.
The film would not have worked without proper leads, and Feldstein and Dever prove to be true revelations. Feldstein had already proved to be a stand-out in small roles in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016) and Lady Bird (2017), but in Booksmart she exemplifies her ability to be a very charismatic lead. Dever meanwhile was able to contrast with Feldstein’s character, by giving her Amy a true depth and quiet relatability that transcended through the screen. Both stars have incredible chemistry together, allowing for their every moment on screen to be a relish.
Booksmart proves to be a hilarious and refreshing entry into the high-school-movie genre. Wilde shows a great restraint and expertise at handling this very tough and volatile material, generating two magnetic performances from her leads. The ending of the film might feel a little dragged out as too many loose ends are dealt with, but Booksmart nevertheless proves to be a great time.