three out of four stars
One of the most time-tested of all film genres, the coming-of-age drama and/or comedy (“Romeo and Juliet” if you want 1500s old or “Rebel Without a Cause” if you want just mid 1950s old) has seen thousands of incarnations and variations but a few constants remain.
Teens will do what they’re told not to by adults or what they’re pressured to do by their peers. It can come in the form of stolen intimacy, the imbibing of mind-altering substances, breaking the law or playing games of chicken. If things go wrong and to the extreme, sometimes there’s death. Teen movies with death don’t fare nearly as well as those without it.
There is no death in “Booksmart” (sorry about that non-spoiler), but there is plenty of all the other stuff. It occasionally flirts with brilliance, and more than a third of it is very funny or quite moving or both. That’s a great batting average. Lots of baseball players would kill to hit .333.
Many critics are calling “Booksmart” the first “raunchy teen” comedy directed by a woman, which is simply not true. Last year’s highly overrated “Blockers” was directed by a woman (Kay Cannon) but was written by two men and though directed by a man, “Bridesmaids” was written by a woman. “Booksmart” is the first comedy of its kind to be directed and written by women (five in all) and there is no denying they infuse the narrative with more estrogen and attitude than anyone was ever expecting.
Another untruth being peddled by many in the press is that the two leads (Beanie Feldstein as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy) do not pursue sex — yet both do, for about the entire second half of the film. One of the lead characters is an admitted lesbian and has been out of the closet for a while, and this part of the plot is written and played as a matter of fact and in no way is considered odd, secretive or lascivious. The filmmakers get extra points for that call, and future creative teams should follow their lead.
The major plot point of the story is established about 10 minutes in, when senior class president and valedictorian Molly overhears three party-hearty types dissing her in one of their school’s unisex bathrooms. It’s nothing she hasn’t already heard before, and while it stings a bit, she emerges from the stall ready levy a retort. What she says isn’t surprising, but what she hears in return opens her eyes wide and sets the wheels in motion for the remainder of the movie.
Even though graduation is the next day and they are extreme lightweights, Molly and a heavily cajoled Amy make it their mission to attend the party being hosted by class vice president Nick (Mason Gooding), but there’s a problem — they don’t know the address.
In the history of movie time killers and lame stalls, this one is impossible to swallow. In a pre-internet, pre-smartphone era, maybe it would work, but with today’s teens — who have been wired since exiting the womb — it’s a big no sale. While not grinding the action down to a total halt, it practically kills the momentum for no reason other than to unnecessarily remind everyone of Molly and Amy’s geek credentials.
First-time feature director Olivia Wilde (yes, that Olivia Wilde) and her committee of four screenwriters start out in familiar teen territory but also have a few twists we never see coming. For instance, on the way to the party Molly and Amy cross paths with an Uber driver they know in a vastly different light and a pizza delivery dude projecting sinister undertones, who resurfaces later, albeit in a much different form. This is the closest we get to a true villain — a practical staple of the genre the filmmakers miraculously avoid with surprisingly effective results.
This doesn’t mean there is not plenty of dramatic fiction and well-conceived supporting players — and again, these aren’t your typical “Porky’s” or “American Pie” cookie cutter caricatures. Those three kids who gave Molly the what-for in the bathroom earlier have huge character arcs of their own as do a handful of others, including an ethically challenged teacher (Jessica Williams) who gets dangerously close to committing a huge legal faux pas. The most interesting of the bunch is Gigi (Billie Lourd, the two most recent “Star Wars” flicks) as a train wreck/hippie-chick who seems to be everywhere at once, much to the astonished amazement of Molly.
The one comparison to “Booksmart” that does actually hold water is to “Superbad,” which, not so ironically, starred Feldstein’s older brother Jonah Hill. In both movies, a pair of best friend outsiders (and yes, intellectual overachievers are considered outsiders in the realm of high school politics) look to make up for lost time. They want to be liked, but only if it is on their own terms.
Much the same can be said for Wilde, who is diving straight into the deep end with “Booksmart.” Despite the lack of respect it gets from film snobs and year-end award committees, comedy is the hardest of all disciplines to pull off convincingly, and Wilde does so and then some, showing the crack timing, composition skills and confidence of a seasoned pro. It will be very interesting to see what she does next.