The main characters of Olivia Wilde’s highly entertaining feature directorial debut Booksmart are high school outcasts, awkward nerds who’ve spent their entire time in school focused solely on studying, and who are scorned by their cooler, more outgoing peers. They’re the kind of characters who’ve led dozens of teen comedies, but Wilde and the movie’s four screenwriters (including Trophy Wife creators Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins) make them distinctive not only by counteracting the male-dominated tradition of coming-of-age comedies, but also by anchoring the characters in specific concerns of their time and place. This is a movie about the class of 2019 that couldn’t have been about the class of 1999 or 1979, although it tackles plenty of universal teenage emotions.
On their last day of high school, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are more than ready to escape their moronic, immature classmates and move on to the more sophisticated world of college at Yale and Columbia, respectively. But when Molly discovers that all the people she thought of as burnouts and reprobates are also headed to top-ranked colleges and universities (or bypassing higher education because they’ve been recruited directly to work for Google), she has a revelation: She and Amy wasted their time avoiding parties and socializing in favor of getting good grades, when they clearly could have done both. Determined to make up for lost time, she convinces Amy to attend a popular student’s party on the night before graduation.
In true teen-comedy fashion, the epic journey to get to the party occupies more than half the movie, as the two friends make detours to an empty yacht bash thrown by wealthy but unpopular classmate Jared (Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo); an elaborate murder mystery party put on by the overenthusiastic theater kids; and an uncomfortable ride-share trip courtesy of their dorky principal (Jason Sudeikis). Along the way, they keep running into self-confident weirdo Gigi (Billie Lourd), who has somehow ingratiated herself into every social group at school.
It’s a funny, silly journey, complete with vulgar jokes and ridiculous supporting characters (Lourd steals every scene she’s in), following a template that recalls everything from Dazed and Confused to Superbad to Adventures in Babysitting. But it’s also a smart, self-aware take on the contradictory messages bombarding young women in 2019, and the tension between being an informed, woke feminist and allowing yourself to cut loose and make mistakes. Molly, whose room is decorated with pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has every step of her life planned out for the next several decades, and Amy, who confidently came out in 1oth grade, is a proud lesbian who’s still too petrified to kiss a girl.
Both of them fumble through romantic encounters over the course of the night, but the focus is really on their deep friendship, the kind of connection that bonds people for life. Feldstein (who shone as the title character’s best friend in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird) and Dever (who’s been poised for stardom since her fantastic supporting role as a teen drug dealer on Justified) have wonderful chemistry, and the moments of support and conflict between Molly and Amy feel genuine and meaningful, even when they’re delivered via crude humor. The comedy ringers brought in for the adult roles make less of an impact (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte have almost nothing to do as Amy’s overly supportive parents, and a subplot featuring Jessica Williams as a “cool” teacher ultimately goes nowhere), but this movie isn’t for or about them, and Wilde captures a teenage experience in which adults are generally distant, confusing presences.
As a director, Wilde is confident and stylish, although she occasionally tries a little too hard (a fantasy sequence in which Molly and Amy hallucinate themselves as dolls goes overboard on the cutesiness). Most importantly, she understands and respects her characters, who have the same exuberance, intelligence and wit as the protagonists of excellent recent teen-girl comedies Lady Bird, The Edge of Seventeen and Never Goin’ Back. Booksmart easily takes its place alongside those modern touchstones, as well as in the overall pantheon of teen comedies.