Poignant, coming-of-age ‘Booksmart’ is uproariously funny, defies stereotypes

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 5/24/19

Fun and uproariously funny, “Booksmart” strikingly follows the same formula as “Superbad” except reframed for overachieving girls. It’s set during the latter high school days of a nebbish …

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Poignant, coming-of-age ‘Booksmart’ is uproariously funny, defies stereotypes

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Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star in 'Booksmart.'
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star in 'Booksmart.'
Photo courtesy of Annapurne Pict
Posted

Fun and uproariously funny, “Booksmart” strikingly follows the same formula as “Superbad” except reframed for overachieving girls. It’s set during the latter high school days of a nebbish named Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), the Michael Cera of this story, and her Jonah Hill doppelgänger, a portly, loud-mouthed pal named Molly (Beanie Feldstein). Like “Superbad,” they’re inseparable friends on a mission to make it to the last Big Party™ before graduation, where they hope to break out of their shells and finally make a move on the secret objects of their romantic affections.

But “Booksmart” is more than a profane, coming-of-age stoner comedy, though it’s also partly that. It’s about a new teenage reality that defies the stereotypes of smart kids, slackers, sluts and jocks. Amy and Molly are the class whiz kids who monopolize student government, butter up their teachers, and look down on their seemingly lackadaisical classmates. Amy’s Volvo is plastered with Nasty Woman and Elizabeth Warren 2020 bumper stickers. While the other kids are attending one last drunken blast, Amy and Molly are planning to watch a Ken Burns documentary. Molly is proudly bound for Yale, while Amy will spend the summer in Botswana before enrolling at Columbia.

However, the self-insulated Amy and Molly stumble upon the revelation that many of their goof-off classmates are also bound for prestige colleges and six-figure tech jobs. Some of them are secret achievers, some are great test-takers, and some excel at extracurricular activities. This realization sends the girls into a tailspin, and they decide to throw caution to the wind for one night and make their way to a party being thrown by Nick, the hunky class clown and VP who Molly secretly pines for. The out Amy hopes to finally hook up with a skateboarding cool girl named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).

Amy and Molly’s nocturnal odyssey to locate Nick’s party (it’s happening at his aunt’s house, and no one will give the girls the address) takes them to a sad soiree onboard a yacht arranged by a rich, eccentric and needy student (Skyler Gisondo), then a murder mystery dinner party hosted by the class drama troupe. The girls trip on laced strawberries and imagine themselves as animatronic dolls, and then try to score rides from a surprise Uber driver (Jason Sudeikis), a pervy pizza delivery man and their with-it teacher (Jessica Williams).

The film’s final act is infected by a touch of inevitably, while much is left unexplored about Amy’s relationship with her parents (the terrific Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), devout Christians trying very hard to embrace their daughter’s sexuality while fundamentally misunderstanding Amy and Molly’s friendship.

Those quibbles aside, there’s a breezy, enjoyable quality to “Booksmart” that transcends its superficial conventions. Actor-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a far cry from the misogyny that permeated teen comedies of the 1980s. It’s the rarity of a female teenage buddy comedy. It presents Amy’s homosexuality as matter-of-fact, while also acknowledging the ongoing difficulties of navigating a world in which you don’t know who feels the same way as you, or when it’s comfortable to express your true feelings. Moreover, it’s a high school milieu devoid of easy, overt villains. People say mean things they ultimately regret, but there aren’t any mean girls. The bullies are mostly AWOL. Even the jocks are going to Stanford and the sluts are also going to Yale. And, the smart girls can let their freak flags fly. Everyone has their foibles and hangups, and working through those is the real struggle. Beneath the bawdy, razor-sharp script, “Booksmart” is both poignant and revelatory. While it borrows from its comedic predecessors, it also updates and upends the genre.

 

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