Though Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart obviously shares a lot of DNA with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the film that kept coming to my mind while watching it was, in fact, last year’s A Star Is Born. Like Bradley Cooper’s revival of that classic Hollywood tale, Booksmart is an actor-turned-director debut that shoots for the moon with its ambitions, an explosion of not only great writing and acting but also a ridiculously steady and confident hand behind the camera. Wilde directs the absolute hell out of Booksmart, and the result is a coming-of-age comedy that feels like it could have been made by an seasoned veteran of the genre.
Taking place over one day, Booksmart follows high school valedictorians Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) as they attempt to get a night of partying in before heading off to college. Though some of the turns of the plot (a party on an empty yacht, a hallucinogenic trip at a murder mystery game) are heightened, even bordering on the fantastical, truth and honesty about the teen experience flow through every scene. Highs and lows of hope and despair hit with immense force, and it’s impossible to not see at least one part of your own end-of-school experience reflected back at you.
On top of that, the script (from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman) is riotously funny. It builds this world and its characters expertly, before mining them for every laugh they’re worth. Booksmart is sympathetic to every high school clique while also hilariously mocking them, from the rich kids Gigi (Billie Lourd) and Jared (Skyler Gisondo, a real scene-stealer) to the ‘idiot’ jocks who happen to actually be very smart. Their own little band of two, Molly and Amy don’t quite fit into any particular tribe, but their pinballing between them as the night gets ever longer and more chaotic is utterly compelling.
Feldstein and Dever are superb, and have an absolutely brilliant chemistry. Their conversations are zippy delights, flitting from raunchy to political to fearful about their future. You’re laughing both with them and at them, and it’s not long before you feel that you genuinely know the pair of them (the depth afforded to so many of the kids by the writing here is astounding). Feldstein graduates from support to lead with no strain whatsoever and Dever, who has impressed for years on TV ever since she broke through in Justified’s second season, is equally fantastic. From Molly’s increasingly frenetic attempts to prove that she is fun to Amy’s first awkward bathroom fumble with class mean girl Hope (Diana Silvers), they fully sell the agony and ecstasy of the transition from kid to adult.
If you didn’t know going in, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that Booksmart was a directorial debut. Wilde has style to burn – just look at a gorgeous underwater scene and a tracking shot through a hectic house party – and a Scorsese-esque knack for consistently pitch-perfect needle drops. There’s hardly a boring shot to be seen, and with such a pulse-raising soundtrack, you’re swept through the film at lightning speed, only to wish that you could spend a lot more time with its characters.
Though the adults only make brief appearances, they all make big impressions, particularly Jason Sudeikis as the school principal and Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s adorably supportive parents. Booksmart should also be a launchpad for a lot of its younger actors – this is a fabulous and endlessly entertaining ensemble cast. Even better than Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, Booksmart is a triumphant calling card for its leading ladies and their virtuoso director.