Booksmart (2019, Olivia Wilde)

Booksmart opens with high school senior Beanie Feldstein getting up on her last day of school; graduation is in the morning. She listens to self-affirmations about—politely—crushing your adversaries as you excel past them. Now, Feldstein lives in an apartment building. Not a terrible one, but not a nice one. Her lack of perception of privilege and class are going to bite her a little so it’s an important detail. Similarly, when best friend Kaitlyn Dever pulls up to drive to school, Dever’s not in a great car. Booksmart is going to exist in a very particular bubble and the film’s got no problem with that bubble, it just doesn’t examine it. Because Booksmart is a comedy. Yes, Feldstein’s an overachiever from a different economic class from her classmates and Dever’s an out lesbian teenager living with two Christian but supportive parent. They’ve got things going on. But the film’s more concerned with being funny and fun, which is exactly what it needs to be doing.

At school, Feldstein gets a rude awakening to how the world of college acceptance works from her classmates, who she assumed were all headed to a trade school and it turns out, no, not only are they going to the same school (Yale) or better than her, even the kid who flunked seventh grade twice (Eduardo Franco) has already got a coding job at Google. Feldstein had no fun and excelled but they had fun and excelled, meaning she was wrong and the things weren’t mutually exclusive—which is true, especially once you find out the kids are all rich. Some are 1%, the others are 3-6%. Turns out Dever’s parents have a great house and the old car is just a Dever thing. The class and privilege aspects gradually get brushed over with the comedy. The details aren’t presently important for Feldstein and Dever, who are going to go on to have their own character development—outstanding character development—usually these little moments in the reactions or dialogue amid the comedy. Booksmart’s always working towards a laugh, usually at least medium ones.

The film knows how to get a laugh and it knows what kind of laugh it’s going to get—some of its the script (Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman—so maybe the most successful four-writer movie in a while), most of its Wilde’s direction and Feldstein and Dever’s performances. Wilde’s sense of timing is exquisite. She and editor Jamie Gross cut the humor perfectly, but then it turns out they’ve also got these more ambitious sequences. There’s this fantastic dance sequence out of nowhere and then this emotional visually poetic underwater swimming sequence. Both those sequences serve Feldstein and Dever, but they’re also the showiest Wilde’s going to be able to get in the film and she ties the filmmaking ambition to the stars; they’re breathtaking sequences. And right after them, Booksmart turns out not to really have an idea of how to get from point C to point D. The film’s second to third act transition is exceptionally rough. It’s well-acted, it’s well-directed—Wilde even does this “hands off” thing when it gets too intense dramatically; Booksmart is about the comedy. The specifics of the drama aren’t the point. Especially not since it concerns Feldstein and Dever’s friendship—because of course it does, it’s a high school best friends comedy, weren’t you paying attention to the genre tropes; even when Felstein and Dever are spouting exposition about their history, Wilde always takes a hands-off approach with the pair. Their friendship needs to illuminate itself through the performances, not the specifics of the dialogue, which is very important as well because it’s often hilarious and the film needs to hit the laugh.

After some brief pathos for the stars, the third act then amps up the physical comedy in the search of an ending. Booksmart’s got a great epilogue, but the ending of the film’s narrative gets desperate at the end and plays a lot on the film’s goodwill. Nicely, the film’s still generating goodwill through the rough spots; Feldstein and Dever can handle the pathos fine, it’s just not serving a purpose. Kind of like the kind of icky thirty-something teacher and the twenty-year old student. That one is the film’s only actual problem, even though it too is a high school movie trope… it’s just one in need of more examination of how it executes in Booksmart, where it’s a C plot.

Okay, time to go over the supporting cast. It’s big, but the actors are essential to the film’s success. It’s one of those apparently perfectly casted films—even though Booksmart’s got the epical narrative, it’s also a hangout movie. And Wilde knows how to showcase the supporting cast. Billie Lourd’s the richest girl, who doesn’t make much impression in her introduction but becomes the film’s best running joke. And Lourd’s great. Then there’s Mason Gooding as Feldstein’s dope of a vice president… but a really hot one who Feldstein’s got a secret crush on. Meanwhile, Dever’s got a years long crush on skater girl Victoria Ruesga, who wishes Dever would party on weekends so… possibilities. Molly Gordon’s the mean girl who turns out to have a bunch of depth. Noah Galvin and Austin Crute are hilarious as the theater guys. Then Skyler Gisondo is the richest boy, who’s extremely socially awkward and seems to have a crush on Feldstein, which Feldstein’s mortified about.

The way the night unfolds—and the plot perturbs—informs how the supporting cast is going to interact with Feldstein and Dever, which leads to reaction scenes for the two of them as their expectations get realized and dashed. And Feldstein and Dever get the funniest material—Wilde sets the narrative distance constantly inform their relationship (and performances) more than anything else, even when the supporting cast is getting some big comic moment. Wilde’s stunningly good at the directing thing. Booksmart’s always impressive for one reason or another.

Great lead performances, great supporting performances, great direction, outstanding script; technically it’s excellent—Gross’s editing, Jason McCormick’s photography, Dan The Automator’s score, all superb. It’s a humdinger of a first feature from director Wilde.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Olivia Wilde; written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman; director of photography, Jason McCormick; edited by Jamie Gross; music by Dan The Automator; production designer, Katie Byron; produced by Chelsea Barnard, David Distenfeld, Jessica Elbaum, Megan Ellison, and Silberman; released by Annapurna Pictures.

Starring Beanie Feldstein (Molly), Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), Skyler Gisondo (Jared), Billie Lourd (Gigi), Victoria Ruesga (Ryan), Mason Gooding (Nick), Diana Silvers (Hope), Molly Gordon (Triple A), Noah Galvin (George), Austin Crute (Alan), Eduardo Franco (Theo), Nico Hiraga (Tanner), and Jason Sudeikis (Principal Brown).


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