The next great high-school movie is here. And I do mean great. Booksmart is that rare treat: a perfect film. Smart, funny, wise, sparkling with wit both visually and in its snappy dialogue, and far, far kinder than we have been trained to expect from movies about teenagers. Or maybe Booksmart is simply an authentic reflection of These Kids Today. Are they really this nice? (I mean, the few I know are. But they can’t all be this sweet and open and broadminded, can they?) They make me feel old, but also my heart breaks for them in the best possible way.
I’m tempted to call Booksmart the new Clueless. This movie is emphatically not about romance, but there’s a lot of overlap anyway, in verve and style. And also in how this movie’s jointed-at-the-hip bestie protagonists, Molly (Beanie Feldstein: Lady Bird, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever: Beautiful Boy, The Front Runner), are — like Clueless’s Cher — sailing through high school on a wave of popularity that has felt like success to them, until they now come to realize that they have both overestimated their own triumphs and underestimated almost everything about their friends and classmates. (Booksmart is also set in Los Angeles with a similar “everywhere in LA is 20 minutes” vibe, though now with Uber and the complications of the dreaded 2-percent phone battery.) Unlike Cher, who struggled academically, Amy and Molly are classroom overachievers — class president and valedictorian Molly is on her way to Yale, in fact — but, like Cher, they still have a lot to learn about themselves.
And they are going to cram in all that learning (or so they think) on this, the last night before graduation after the very last day of high school. I’m not sure that the coming-of-age story gets any more coming-of-age-ier than at that sharp and sudden cusp between high school and the rest of your life, which — even I can remember this, all these decades later — seems to take forever to get to and then crashes down over you with a startling abruptness. One day you’re a high-school kid, and literally the next… you’re a grown-up (at least in theory). Molly and Amy have been nose-to-the-books for the past four years, and full of disdain for the kids who have neglected school (or so they’ve believed) in favor of fun, and get a smack-in-the-face eye-opener about how much they’ve missed out on. Now, they have “one night left to have partied and studied in high school.”
It will not be pretty. It will be hilarious in that laugh-and-cry-at-the-same-time way that makes this movie work even more powerfully if you’re already long past adolescence and recall that bittersweet ache that came with burgeoning self-awareness: the pain but also the hard-won — and surprisingly gratifying — resignation of giving up presuming that you know everything about everything, that you don’t have to know everything about everything. That comes with granting other people the permission to be as flawed and as human as you are. And allowing yourself to be flawed and human, too. I feel like this perfectionist drive is a particular affliction of high-achieving teen girls, and I am so happy to see a movie like Booksmart granting leave to those girls to go easier on themselves. I was like Molly and Amy, too, and would have loved to see a movie like this when I was a teenager. (I had to settle for Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but that wasn’t the same thing at all. Neither was Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. These kids today: they have no idea how much better their cinematic teen role models are!)
I adore absolutely everything about this movie. The vividly drawn characters: every single one of Molly and Amy’s classmates are beautiful and original and distinct and so warm and human and wonderfully weird, as are Molly and Amy themselves. (There’s no high-school villain to be found here. I cannot recall another movie about high school that didn’t need a bad guy — or bad girl — to create engaging conflict.) The complete lack of grossout humiliation, which so many lazy teen comedies fall back on; no one here needs to be shamed or embarrassed about anything they want or anything they do, and that is so very sublime, so very humane. The generous portrayals of the kids’ elders, like the school principal, briefly but boldly sketched by Jason Sudeikis (Downsizing, Colossal) as an overworked, underpaid GenXer exhausted by the unflagging enthusiasm of his juniors; and Jessica Williams (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Hot Tub Time Machine 2) as the cool teach not that much older than her students but unexpectedly finding that she is way further along on her life path than they are. The portrait of utter unwavering support that best girlfriends give each other; Amy and Molly are my new heroes, in all their magnificent blinkered self-absorption giving way to melancholy adulthood. I so very stan. I would love to see a sequel set 20 years from now, so we can find out where they end up.
It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the first feature film that actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde has made. (The script is by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman.) It’s so self-assured, so inventive, so, well, high-achieving in a way that Amy and Molly would recognize but without any of their selfish (if also amiable) arrogance. Booksmart easily leaps over that first-time-director bar of “hey, he [almost always he] manages not to trip over his own feet here!” This is a movie that is confident but also seemingly effortless. It is pure joy… and pure joy about the life experience of girls. Which makes Booksmart even more unusual, and more welcome. Brava.
Watch the first six minutes of Booksmart, and you will be compelled to see the rest of it: