Gone are the days of the overproduced, by-the-numbers studio comedy. The indie coming-of-age joyride is in.
“Booksmart,” the wonderful new high school movie directed by actress-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde, doesn’t hit wide release until the end of May. When it does, it will surely cement itself as an instant classic and the latest in a new canon of freewheeling indie knockouts including the likes of “Lady Bird,” “Eighth Grade” and “Tangerine.”
But while the styles of those movies are more indie-leaning, Wilde’s draws its influences predominantly from the high school movies of yore — “21 Jump Street” and “Mean Girls” come to mind. Think “Lady Bird” meets “Superbad,” but on a wavelength all its own.
Set on the eve of high school graduation, “Booksmart” follows longtime friends and straight-A students Molly and Amy as they realize they didn’t have to forsake their social lives for a strong academic future and decide to party like crazy for a night.
It’s a strong premise with ample room for charm and loads of potential for side-splitting laughs, potential that, for the most part, Wilde is able to capitalize on. Working from a script by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, she spins this crazy caper into a touching tale of female friendship amped up on high school nostalgia and bolstered by uniformly excellent performances by a cast of stars in the making.
Chief among them is Beanie Feldstein, an absolute gem of an actress who reveals herself here as a comedic powerhouse and a bona fide charmer. The “Lady Bird” breakout stars as Molly, whose charm is undeniable but undercut by a sweet — and more vitally, relatable — awkwardness. Alongside her, delivering an equally memorable performance, is Kaitlyn Dever, the Bonnie to Amy’s Clyde.
Dever lends similarly grin-inducing charm to her role. That dynamic duo would be enough to sell the movie on its own, but it’s a testament to the movie, and surely to Wilde’s directorial talent as well, that there’s not a bad or forgettable performance in “Booksmart.” Even smaller roles are wonderfully performed, and it’s from a number of those supporting roles that many of the movie’s deepest emotional truths emerge.
The movie’s greatest strength is its capacity to find something genuine and universal in this otherwise goofy glance at high school antics. There’s a degree of high school nostalgia behind that, something “Booksmart” levies both for cringe factor and emotional depth, the movie is rooted in something deeper. Wilde and her screenwriters know telling a memorable story takes more than just nonstop laughs. It takes finding something real.
“Booksmart” feels so special because of that depth and universality, and will undoubtedly strike a chord with audiences everywhere despite some of the sloppier elements of its script. Certainly, praise for the writers’ work is deserved not only for the character arcs and unexpected subversions it pulls off, but also for the grace with which it does so.
And yet Fogel, Halpern, Haskins and Silberman’s screenplay isn’t without its weak points, especially a large chunk of the movie’s midsection that feels like nothing but padding.
They’ve taken a strong premise and fleshed it out into something touching and often uproariously funny, but the screenplay occasionally feels like it doesn’t trust itself enough.
There are a few set pieces in particular that feel like diversions, delaying the inevitable arrival at the emotional and comedic apex of the movie for the sake of some extra antics. Extra laughs are rarely a bad thing, but it’s hard not to imagine how perfectly a leaner and more to-the-point version of “Booksmart” plays.
But the thing about “Booksmart” is not only does it overcome the majority of its weakest moments, it also feels fresh despite its familiarity. Wilde knows she’s treading familiar ground but does so with confidence and poise. Nearly every scene exudes charm and warmth.
Her filmmaking does more than trace the events of a wild night, it whisks the viewer right alongside the characters as they frolic from one shenanigan to the next.
“Booksmart” is a wild ride that’s absolutely worth taking, time and time again.