Once or twice a year, a comedy will come out that has something more on its mind beyond just a quest for cheap laughs.
In 2019, that film is “Booksmart,” a nuanced and insightful feature that elevates high school movie tropes to new heights.
Written by four women and helmed by veteran actress turned first time director Olivia Wilde, “Booksmart” doesn’t seek to revolutionize genre as much as it succeeds in rising above it.
The latest in a long line of coming-of-age, end of high school dramedies, “Booksmart” follows best friends Molly and Amy on their last day of senior year as the conscientious pair decide to consolidate four years of partying into one wild night.
Conceptually, “Booksmart” is far from treading new ground. It’s in the execution of Wilde’s artistic indie vision for the film and pitch-perfect chemistry between lead actresses Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as Molly and Amy respectively that set this dramedy apart from the crowd.
Feldstein embraces the headstrong academic Molly with a vigor relatable to anyone whose high school had an overbearing class president. The bravado with which Feldstein attacks scenes opposite Dever or adults at the school is wonderfully counterbalanced with an internalized desire to keep classmates at arm’s length to prevent getting hurt emotionally.
Dever takes great care to slowly unfold Amy’s personality as she attempts to overcome personal and romantic insecurities. Her performance elevates non-verbally as Dever lets audiences into Amy’s state of mind through the squint of an eye or sinking of the shoulders.
Their chemistry together is simply impeccable as Molly and Amy have an instant deep-seeded attachment that feels lived in despite the two actresses having never met before the start of production. The joy expressed on screen when the pair are dancing on the street, bantering in a vehicle or incredulously complementing each other cannot be faked. It’s a palpable energy that radiates off of their performances and permeates throughout the entire film.
The ensemble cast of “Booksmart” is littered with quality secondary characters that fill the world of the film with their eccentricity, none more so than Billie Lourd’s absurdist free spirit Gigi.
Lourd shimmers off the screen with a vibrancy that rises to the crest of going over the top but doesn’t quite tip into caricature. Gigi’s aggressive, antagonistic appearances sprinkled throughout “Booksmart” challenge Molly and Amy at key moments while also providing humor in her ridiculousness.
Even smaller characters – Noah Galvin’s demonstrative thespian and Eduardo Franco’s risk-taking stoner come to mind – have a heightened presence in “Booksmart” that one wouldn’t find in the usual high school comedy. It’s clear that each performer has made a deliberate, intentional choice about their character no matter how essential they are to the story and this gives “Booksmart” a rounder complexity.
High school comedies rarely go for broke visually, opting for a crowd-pleasing sheen one would usually find on a network television sitcom.
Wilde goes out of her way to find the most interesting angles from which to frame her characters, drawing audiences in with harsh closeups contrasting with wider shots to keep viewers present in the moment rather than casual observers.
The cinematography of “Booksmart” has a slight faded quality to it, evoking a recent past though it’s culturally cemented in 2019.
Viewers can see Wilde’s growth directorially come alive on screen as “Booksmart” becomes a more daring, confident film while marching into its third act.
There’s a truly special underwater scene scored to Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away” following Amy around a crowded pool that vividly and stunningly tells her quest for self-discovery in pictures and emotions rather than words.
This kicks off a dynamic 10-minute sequence late in “Booksmart” that may be one of the year’s most special moments featuring more cinematic flair than in any comedy in recent memory.
Music is instrumental to the success of “Booksmart” both in the modern, yet nostalgic score from Dan The Automator and in the richly curated soundtrack.
Wilde perfectly chooses songs that speak to the moment and spins tracks in and out of sequences, blending tunes to enhance or interrupt the narrative as needed. This also extends to her deft hand on the sound mixing, altering or cutting out sound entirely to change the viewers’ focus, most notably in a conversation between the two leads at a party.
“Booksmart” isn’t the funniest movie nor is it the most observational or risqué. What the film overwhelmingly succeeds at is making the seemingly innocuous plight of two well-to-do high school girls feel relatable across generation, gender and sexual identity.
It’s a decidedly inclusive film in a matter-of-fact way where characters have individual agency over choices they make in the narrative rather than a by-product of limiting stereotypes.
This is especially true of Amy, a character whose attraction to women is neither marginalized nor overtly celebrated. A rare high school film not about sex, “Booksmart” allows Amy to have complexity rather than limited to merely a funny gay best friend character to a straight lead.
The film smartly orients audiences by guiding them through the one-night-only narrative odyssey with familiar guideposts as Molly and Amy meander across Los Angeles to find Nick’s party, but again, these tropes do not define what “Booksmart” is.
An immensely rewatchable experience, the layers of simple complexity in the film will become more apparent as audiences find jokes they laughed over on a first viewing or the unique directorial flourishes Wilde includes.
“Booksmart” is likely the best film you won’t see in theaters but will watch six months from now and kick yourself from not finding it sooner.