Booksmart review: Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut has plenty of drinking, drug taking, and messy attempts at sex

Wilde is a visually inventive director who keeps the tempo brisk in film about two bookish girls who go AWOL

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 29 May 2019 21:31 BST
Booksmart official trailer

Dir: Olivia Wilde. Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis. 15 cert, 102 mins.

The coming-of-age high school movie is given a shot in the arm in actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut. Booksmart uses plot elements that have been seen countless times before on screen in films from American Graffiti and American Pie to Brat Pack movies and She’s All That, but she approaches them in a fresh and engaging way. Wilde is a visually inventive director, who keeps the tempo here so brisk that we hardly notice how glib the storytelling sometimes becomes. We can tell exactly how the film will end, but it still feels original both in its screwball energy and in the deft way it continually reverses stereotypes and gender clichés.

Characters here behave with a raucousness that might have made John Belushi in his prime blush and squirm in embarrassment. The film features drinking, drug taking, messy attempts at sex (involving confusion over orifices), masturbation, pornography references and the mandatory scenes of throwing up. The key difference between Booksmart and its legion of predecessors is that the main protagonists aren’t hedonistic jocks or frat boys, but the two most studious young women at their California high school.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are about to graduate. They’re bluestockings who take immense pride in the fact that they work far harder than any of their classmates. They drive to school in a car with “I love big books” written on a bumper sticker on the back – and no irony is intended. The former is planning to take a gap year in Botswana so she can do voluntary work to help local women make their own tampons. The latter is heading straight after finishing school to her Ivy League college. Not only are they bookish, they take political correctness to extremes. Amy is “out” but hasn’t yet had any meaningful physical relationships with other women. She is very fussy about distinguishing between “gender performance” and “real sexual orientation”. (Unpick the jargon and what she seems to be saying is that certain classmates are playing at being lesbian.)

The moment of revelation, which transforms the two friends’ lives on their very last day of high school, comes when Molly hears other school friends talking about her. “She’s so weird she acts like she’s 40” is one remark she hears. “Her vagina is probably full of diplomas” is another. Molly takes the insults in her stride because she assumes she is going to a top college and they aren’t. Then, to her utter dismay, she finds out that these moronic party-going airheads also have places at Yale and Stanford or top-level jobs at Google. “It isn’t possible!” she complains. ”You guys don’t care about school.” “No, we don’t care only about school,” comes the reply that devastates her. She and Amy belatedly realise that they’ve lived their austere academic lifestyles for nothing. They could have partied wildly… and still passed their exams. “Nobody knows we’re fun,” they lament.

It’s the last night of school and the two friends resolve to make up for all those lost years and have as wild a time as possible. The fact that they don’t really know how to party, or even where the best parties are being held, won’t stop them.

Booksmart conforms closely to the typical end-of-school drama while mocking many of its conventions. Over the course of a tumultuous night, the two women have all the cathartic, life-changing experiences that might be expected. They ogle and try to seduce the objects of their fantasy. In the most surreal sequence in the film, they take hallucinogenic drugs and imagine they’ve been transformed into voluptuous plastic Barbie dolls.

The gag-filled screenplay by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman combines the obvious, often crude jokes about sex and bodily functions, with plenty of caustic and witty repartee. However off their heads Amy and Molly become in the course of the night, they never lose their powers of observation or their flair for self-deprecating comic one-liners.

Booksmart works both as satire and as a film about friendship and growing up. It has its own chorus/fairy godmother figure in the shape of Gigi (Billie Lourd), the ultra-wealthy, flaky classmate who turns up wherever Amy and Molly go, ready to lead them into fresh mischief. For all its subversive elements, the film ends up reinforcing the values that most other high-school comedies also celebrate – loyalty, camaraderie, sacrifice and the ability to party so wildly that the cops are called. “I used to think you were all work and no play, but you’re actually pretty fun,” Amy and Molly are told. Praise doesn’t come any higher than that.

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