Booksmart, the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, is another journey down the halls of a wealthy high school days before graduation, but it’s different enough to be endearing. Written by an all-female writing team including Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, the script centers on life-long besties Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) as they attempt to party one time before the end of high school. Wilde and company draw from a whimsical, rainbow palate to explore friendship at diverging roads. It’s an instant classic.
Wilde has been on set since she was a teenager, and it’s clear she’s been studying the entire time. Her cast consists of young Hollywood royalty who, presumably, also learned from their time on set. Feldstein (the younger sister of Jonah Hill), co-stars Mason Gooding (Cuba Gooding Jr.’s son), and Billie Lourd (daughter of the late Carrie Fisher) all give career-launching performances. Wilde’s lens, coupled with the cinematographer Jason McCormick’s eye, steadily reveals the inner landscapes of the ensemble cast. Lourd’s Gigi reveal comes in slow-motion. She spills out of her lowrider like Beyoncé in the “Formation” video, shaking her long golden locks and completely enmeshed with the moment, and the feeling of being alive.
In a similar scene exploring body image and the modern teenage girl, Amy and Molly envision themselves as Barbie Dolls while they are tripping. They lament the loss of their genitalia and marvel at their huge breasts. Feldstein and Dever shine as an odd couple. Molly wants to be the youngest person ever elected to the Supreme Court, while Amy seeks to discover what possibilities life may open up for her. Easily feeding off of one another’s energy, they’re a comedy duo I wouldn’t mind seeing in another setting. Like any almost perfect couple, their problem boil down to communication. The script slowly reveals this through Amy’s hesitation in the shadow of Molly’s self-assured thrill-seeking. Each of the girls’ actions links back to their individual insecurities.
In another key visual moment, Amy swims in her underwear between the student bodies hovering above the water. No longer cowering, she is relaxed and smiling for the first time in the film. Like a side scroller videogame, she swims the length of the pool, distinguishing the shot from the rest of the visual landscape. Dever’s reserve is evenly measured. Broken down until only the truth comes out, the fury she unleashes surprises and then enrages Molly. The chaos of repressed anger and things unsaid between a co-dependent duo isn’t the end of the film. It’s the crux. Unlike most teen films that center on a romance, Amy and Molly are the most important couple in the movie.
As they travel around town, jumping parties, trying to reach the ultimate cool kids’ party, they cross paths with a diverse array of students also attempting to hide their painfully obvious insecurities. As the night progresses, those masks begin to slip, and the person each of these students is striving to become begins to emerge. My favorite journey comes from white boy wanna-be rapper, Jarred (Skyler Gisondo). At first, Amy and Molly see him as a doormat to Gigi, not realizing that Jared and Gigi’s relationship is a near mirror image of theirs. Only, Jared and Gigi understand one another’s shortcomings. They love each other despite their differences, or maybe because of them. At the end of the night, an exhausted Jared is able to let his guard down with Molly and reveal the wise and confident being dwelling beneath the tacky car and horrible sweaters. He’s the opposite of the shy nerdy girl turned hot prom date.
The pendulum of teen girl movies swings typically from Clueless—girl-powered, cutesy, high-fashion first-love-centered—to Thirteen, the wild, angry, depressed and running from all genuine emotion kind of movie. Most of these films lay in the space of heteronormative, white, upper or middle class, and able-bodied representation. Even in films centered on otherness, like Bend It Like Beckham, the white best friend is given equal space in the advertising of the film, and the original queer angle was written out in favor of a love triangle. Visit nearly any segment of the internet visited by Millennial, Gen
X, and Gen Z women, and the cry for better representation is loud and clear.
Booksmart has two white leads. One of those women identifies as gay. Where queer and race diversity representation are concerned the film does a good job. There’s a moment, when Amy has her first sexual experience in a bathroom with another woman, that is filmed with such sincere care and then thrust into the awkward sphere of trying something new before it finally ends with a gross-out joke that left me laughing long after the scene had ended. The school is incredibly diverse, and many of those secondary characters are given space to develop stories. (Jessica Williams plays a horny, thirty-something teacher that was truly shocking.)
A perfect balance between sexualized/gross-out humor and sincere admiration for one of the wildest emotional periods of a human being’s life, Booksmart screens like a love letter to that best friend who was closer to a life partner than a school chum. The film suggests that, despite the chaos and fear of beginning a new chapter, there’s always something good to remember about the phase that brings an individual to their current state of being. It’s also a film that makes me look forward to seeing Wilde’s next picture. (Likewise, whatever film Feldstein, Dever, Gooding or Lorde decide to do next, I will be there.) There’s a fresh-faced newness of raw talent in Booksmart that begs to be a touchstone for the next generation of filmmakers. Like Wes Anderson’s Rushmore or Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, Booksmart is an experience cinema enthusiast will revisit again and again.
Director: Olivia Wilde
Writer: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Victoria Ruesga, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.