With Booksmart, Olivia Wilde becomes the third rookie director in a year to kick her career off with a coming-of-age story. Wilde joins a list that includes Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade) and Jonah Hill (mid90s). Burnham and Hill, coming from comedy and acting, respectively, made the transition with ease. Wilde’s lively, pensive debut about female friendship and identity makes her the third new director to find success in the genre.
On their final day of high school, overachieving seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) learn that their hard-partying classmates were also accepted into prestigious colleges. Heads buried in books throughout their four years of high school, Molly and Amy decided to skip the parties for late-night trips to the local 24-hour college library. Inspired by the nature of their work-hard-play-hard classmates, Molly and Amy decide to make the most of their final day of the high school and last night before graduation. On a night that takes them to three different parties, Molly and Amy uncover truths about themselves, their classmates, and each other.
Written by Emily Halpern, Susanna Fogel, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, Booksmart is laugh-out-loud funny. The bawdy-but-harmless humor is proof once again that yes, comedy can push boundaries without offending. Booksmart’s closest corollary is the male-led 2007 millennial classic, Superbad. Superbad, coincidentally enough, is headlined by Hill, Feldstein’s brother, and Michael Cera. While it’s impossible to guess whether Booksmart has the staying power of Superbad, it has all the makings of Gen Z’s own quintessential teen comedy. Between Hill, Cera, and Emma Stone, Superbad was a star-making machine. It’s clear from the getgo that we’ll be seeing Feldstein for a long time to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if Billie Lourd, playing the mercurial and flighty Gigi, took off, too.
Wilde’s diverse cast represents a much-needed changing of the guard for the teen comedy, historically dominated by white men. We’ve come a long way since American Pie and Animal House, which, frankly, could stand to be forgotten in the modern era. Mean Girls and Clueless, two of the genre’s more representative films, are monopolized by white women. Booksmart, though driven by white women, is otherwise representative of a Southern California high school.
At least eight different characters, each memorable, were given complete story arcs in Booksmart. Instead of throwing to a high school archetype for a cheap laugh, real character development happens on screen. This is an ambitious gamble in a 105-minute comedy, and it pays off. Wilde’s vision in Booksmart is progressive and perhaps a touch idyllic, but that’s preferable to the alternative.
Music, a teen-comedy staple, is deployed effectively but incessantly (bordering parody). Wilde will need to curtail her reliance on the soundtrack going forward. The cinematography could also lend itself to the humor, but Wilde opted for a safer, more traditional approach. Neither of these misses are enough to derail the most complete high school comedy since Superbad. The strides made in Molly and Amy’s friendship and their journey to support rather than compete with their classmates are compelling themes that Gen Z (and its predecessors) need to contend with.