Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’ is Bold, Hilarious & Deeply Empathetic
‘Booksmart’ is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, but I would prefer to use the term declaration. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is created by a group of women who know exactly what they want to say. Wilde smoothly directs a script written by Susanna Fogel (who wrote The Spy Who Dumped Me), Katie Silberman (who wrote the screenplay for Isn’t It Romantic), and Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins (who co-created that Malin Akerman TV project Trophy Wife); casts an array of diverse young actors; tells a story that isn’t cruel to any gender or race or sexuality; and makes the whole thing disgustingly funny.
Like, I screamed numerous times while watching the movie funny. Like, I will be quoting this movie for months and maybe years funny. Like, go to the bathroom before taking your seat because you don’t want to miss one damn joke funny. Is this clear? It was incredibly fucking funny!
And yet, also empathetic and compassionate, too. It’s a love letter to the uncool girls, to the ones who refused to define their worth relative to other people and yet who wondered, deep-down inside, locked underneath whatever protection of smirking sarcasm and know-it-all intelligence they built up over years of not fitting in, what it would feel like to do so. I recognized so much of my youth in the characters of Booksmart, in the way they desperately cared about everything and anything, and yet also judged those they assumed were judging them. I thought many times of how Michael Cera’s character in Juno tells Ellen Page, “I try really hard, actually.” And of how Lady Bird asks her mother, “What if this is the best version?” You can do that—you can compare a lot of teen movies with Booksmart—but it builds on the genre with an understanding of who teenagers are now, what the Class of 2019 cares about, and who they want to be.
Booksmart follows in the footsteps of Superbad and The Kings of Summer—movies about the tight friendships between boys who aren’t particularly popular or cool—with a young woman-specific spin that will feel to certain viewers like a movie written in shorthand particularly for us. (Yes, Booksmart follows in the path Blockers forged.) The setting is a Los Angeles-area high school, the last day of school, and Class of 2019 President and Valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s sister, FYI) and her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Loretta from Justified!) are ecstatic that their high school experience is almost over.
“Where was this energy at my inauguration assembly?” Molly complains as people are acting wild in the hallways; “Why would you do theater when you can do debate?” she demands of another student; she takes out a marker to fix bathroom graffiti from “Your” to “You’re.” Molly is a lot. But she is also fiercely devoted to Amy, who came out two years ago but still hasn’t had her first kiss with a girl. They’re attending Yale and Columbia in the fall, respectively, and they’re overjoyed to start the next phase of their lives, to get the hell out of this place, to become the people they’re meant to be.
But then Molly learns that all of her preconceived notions about her classmates—the ones who partied all four years of high school, who dated and drank and smoked and did all the things Molly and Amy didn’t do while they were studying or watching Ken Burns documentaries or having fake IDs made so they could sneak into a local college’s 24-hour library—are wrong. The boys who call her a “butterface personality”? One of them is going to Google, one of them is going to Stanford. The girl Molly insultingly calls Triple A for giving out “roadside assistance” to guys? She’s going to Yale, too. “We just don’t only care about school,” they tell Molly, and this realization sends her into a tailspin.
The only thing to do, with only one night left in their high school lives before graduation the next day, is to attend the popular kids’ party and make up for four years. Molly is gung-ho and Amy is skeptical, but they’re each other’s ride-or-die—and so they gear up in matching jumpsuits, call up their try-hard friend Jared (Skyler Gisondo, as delightful here as he is on Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet) for a ride, and start their night of partying. What happens next is unexpected interactions with teachers, an outfit change, goofy teenage antics, bad drug trips, and all the things we love about high school movies.
Note how I didn’t say “love and hate” in that preceding sentence? Because I don’t hate a damn thing about Booksmart (my only critique would be an instance of a character benefiting from white privilege toward the end of the film, but it didn’t derail the movie for me). There are familiar elements here, but they each serve a certain purpose in this narrative and in this genre, and they’re all told from a woman’s point of view this time. Molly and Amy are the kind of socially aware teens who worship Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and rail against patriarchy and heteronormativity, but they also watch porn, adore sequined dresses, and geek out about Harry Potter—they embody the best things about our changing cultural attitudes, and their passion and excitement to go out and change the world are infectious.
Molly and Amy’s friendship is nuanced and layered and realistic. Feldstein and Dever are in sync from the first scene, when they vibe off each other with increasingly ridiculous dance moves, to an ending that is tear-soaked and lovely. Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, and Jason Sudeikis are great as the various parents and teachers who varyingly support and encourage these girls. The young cast is excellent, too, demonstrating all facets of high school life: the athletic dreamboat (Mason Gooding), the tattooed skater girl (Victoria Ruesga), the deadpan outsider (Diana Silvers), the tyrannical theater kid (Noah Galvin), the beautiful and reviled one (Molly Gordon), and the glorious weirdo (Billie Lourd). Lourd, in particular, is a revelation: She materializes in scenes, fucks shit up, murmurs mesmerizing nonsense, and then floats away in a cloud of glitter nail polish, gauzy tulle, and mile-high platform sandals. She is a delight!
But all of Booksmart is a delight, really. Alongside an array of female collaborators, Wilde has done something phenomenal here, lovingly painting a portrait of female adolescence that isn’t afraid to be raunchy or gross or uproarious, isn’t afraid to laugh or take up space, isn’t afraid to exist fully as itself. Booksmart is affirming and excellent, a triumph for Wilde and a gift for us.
Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart screened at the 2019 SXSW film festival.
Image sources (in order of posting): Epk.tv/Annapurna, Epk.tv/Annapurna, Epk.tv/Annapurna