I’ve seen so many films about American high schools, I almost feel like I attended one. You always wonder how you would have fitted in, and which, if any, of the many warring tribes might have accepted you. No doubt all that stuff about jocks and nerds, cheerleaders and drama queens has been exaggerated, but in films, the concept has become so ossified that most high school movies get suffocated by it.
Not Booksmart, however, which subverts those tribal clichés and ultimately upends them, reflecting the new mores of a generation determined to avoid glib sexual and social classifications. The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, it bears some relation to the John Hughes teen films of the 1980s, which I never loved though they had their moments, as well as Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. More substantial than the former, Booksmart is lighter, more playful than the latter, and gets its tone exactly right.
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On the eve of their graduation, high school swots Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) make a horrifying discovery. All through school, they’ve stuck together and prioritised study and academic achievement over everything else. They’ve both earned places at Ivy League colleges, but are disgusted to discover that most of the party animals they know are going to Harvard, Yale and Princeton as well.
This seems radically unfair to Molly, who histrionically regrets that she and Amy didn’t enjoy their high school years as well. Now, the evening before their graduation ceremony, Molly persuades a reluctant Amy to accompany her to a class party to which they have only theoretically been invited. And so they get dressed up to the nines, call an Uber and embark on a night more packed with incident then Homer’s Odyssey.
Along the way, the friends will discover that their classmates think they’re pretentious and up themselves: they also find out that having fun takes practice. And when they do eventually get to that party, Amy and Molly’s friendship is tested by the possibility of romance.
Feldstein, younger sister of Jonah Hill, has a natural feel for comedy. She played Saoirse Ronan’s long-suffering best friend in Ladybird, and here takes centre-stage with a hilariously energetic performance. Molly is an impossibly earnest teenager, who over-thinks everything and is affronted by the notion that anyone else might be as smart as her.
She and Amy have spent so much time worrying about academic achievement that they’ve forgotten to be young, and trying to pack their teenagehood into a single night inevitably leads to problems. As Amy, Dever is often the straight man to Feldstein, but also gives the film its soul: she’s gay, and doing her best to come to terms with it, but her natural caution has put the kibosh on relationships – thus far.
To Wilde’s great credit though, Booksmart is an ensemble piece in which all of the supporting characters are given three dimensions. Amy’s parents Doug (Will Forte) and Charmaine (Lisa Kudrow) are so determined to support her orientation that they overdo it mortifyingly, and have also become convinced that she and Molly are romantically involved, a misconception Molly milks for her own amusement.
The director’s boyfriend, Jason Sudeikis, is extremely droll as the high school principal, a jaded fellow who drives a taxi at night and does not seem entirely committed to his profession. Noah Galvin is great value for money as George, a fastidious classmate who’s big in the drama club and organises an absurdly elaborate murder mystery party that Molly and Amy manage to ruin. And Skyler Gisondo gives us a touching portrayal of Jared, the flashy child of super-rich parents who seems crass and oafish, but is actually just lonely and rather sweet.
That’s an underlying theme in Booksmart – the idea that the giant distinctions high schoolers draw between themselves are largely illusory, and mere survival mechanisms.
It works perfectly as both comedy and drama, and also manages to evoke the mind-melting intensity of the teenage state.
Booksmart (16, 102 mins)
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