The high school experience is one of life’s not so uncommon phenomena, a thing so unique to each individual and yet simultaneously so predictably ubiquitous. For Amy and Molly (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein), high school has been a safe, comfortable journey, in which they committed themselves wholly to getting good grades so that they could end up at the best colleges and, in general, set themselves up for success in the future.
The problem is, they made it “the only thing”. They put themselves into a box and refused to explore everything that youth, up to the eve of their high school graduation, had to offer. Booksmart has to juggle a fine line in that it has to not condone destructive behaviour but still allow its characters to embrace the fact that there’s value in taking a step off of the path sometimes. When Molly learns that many of her fellow students made it into prestigious colleges, seemingly juggling study with rampant social lives, her entire approach to her teenage years is thrown into disrepair.
The two girls (well, mostly Molly, at the reluctance of her less adventurous best friend) decide to go to a party on the night before graduation so that they might at least be able to claim that they did indeed party during high school. What results is a night where, of course, things don’t go to plan, though not as we might expect. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut buzzes with youthful energy, managing to be both fabulously funny and also heartfelt where needed. Even if perhaps not all viewers can relate to the particular position the two girls have found themselves in, the film is likely to cast the mind back to a personal memory or two at some point. Whether it’s the pin drop in the pit of your stomach at the sight of a crush hooking up with somebody else, or its accurate portrayal of an awkward first sexual encounter, Booksmart actually draws on what it feels like to have lived those years, and the frequent discomfort that comes with it.
Taking place over the course of about twelve hours, the two girls find themselves bouncing from one locale to the next in their attempts to find the party, the address of which they have a gloriously hard time learning. The performances are wonderful, and the relationship is cringeworthy in all of the right ways. There’s a definite co-dependent nature to their friendship, which is teased but not explored – when so little time passes in a story there’s a limit to the amount of exploration and personal growth available to the script. Writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman know what they have to work with. And they work with it beautifully. Each character feels like flesh, bone, and more, and their plights become ours. Stories allow us a backseat pass into the lives of their protagonists, and it doesn’t matter what kind of life that character leads. Any premise can earn our sympathy.
Amy and Molly are surrounded by a number of colourful fellow students. Some feel very much like caricatures, while others are made to appear as caricatures before the rug is pulled and we are forced to recognise that we’re making an unfounded judgement call. The film is deeply rooted in contemporary society, without feeling obligated to making a big deal out of it. It never matters what a character’s sexual preference is, or what gender they identify as. The character him or herself is is the important part. As such, nobody feels token, which is nice. In spite of its accurate portrayal of certain teenage events, there are elements that feel heightened and less authentic than the interpersonal relationships. For all of the relatability, there’s plenty of hyperrealism too – as is part and parcel of the genre.
The selection of music is perfect and the editing pristine in its effectiveness. The first time we meet the two girls is a defining one. With the music blaring, the two dance confidently on the street. Cut the music and you have a “singing-in-the-shower” type of moment. They dance that little too long, to hilarious effect. Single scenes are inventive all on their own. When Amy dives into the pool, we’re transported with her into weightless euphoria – it might be the film’s most beautiful moment. It’s funniest could be its stop motion sequence involving drugs and two Barbie Dolls. I’ll leave it at that.
Progression in modern storytelling is, to be blunt, essential. It’s not enough to just throw a line of dialogue or a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of inclusivity out at an audience that’s arguably more intelligent than ever. Booksmart keeps its feminist themes close to its chest without clutching at them too tightly. It knows how to poke fun at the right things and strokes its own beliefs with a light touch. In such an aggressive social climate the warmth in Booksmart’s wilfully free-spirited approach might be exactly what cinema needs right now. This isn’t changing any rules in the Coming of Age category, but it’s a fresh coat of paint and sets the bar high for whatever comes next.
Film ’89 Verdict – 8/10
Booksmart is on general theatrical release now.