Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “Booksmart” (2019)

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as best friends and academically thriving high school girls Molly and Amy who both look forward to attending prestigious colleges but on the day before graduation, they discover that the underachieving party animals of the school have inexplicably been accepted into good colleges as well, leading them to realise that they’ve spent too much time working hard and not enough time having fun. So Molly decides that before their graduation, they will attend the cool kids’ party to finally go wild and for Amy to hook up with the girl she has a crush on. But can they actually find the party and will their longstanding friendship survive the night as certain truths are revealed?

This lil’ coming-of-age story has already attracted much critical acclaim and while I didn’t truly adore it as much as others have, Booksmart is nonetheless a really fun, smart, moving and entertaining film with a sharp script, two excellent central performances, and though we may occasionally be bombarded with repetitive, unfunny studio comedies these days, Booksmart is a shining example of a teen comedy done just right.

And, dude, what makes this film work so very well is the central duo of Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever. In their very first scene, when we see them greet each other in the street and whip out some dope dance moves, dude, it immediately becomes apparent that these characters love each other, they’ve known each other for years and they enjoy being in each other’s company. All in the first three minutes? Dude, that’s remarkable and it’s really a testament to the two gifted actresses, the director and the writing . . . dude.

The characters of Molly and Amy are what make the film soar because they’re so wonderfully dorky, relatable and really quite funny and Feldstein and Dever have natural chemistry as well thriving in their own individual scenes. They excel in the wackier parts of the film, fully committing to the film’s brand of comedy, and in the quieter moments, they genuinely nail the emotional beats and give us sympathetic and lovely characters we can fully get behind. It’s also neat how these two central protagonists are clearly very intelligent, something different in the teen comedy universe, but at the same time, they aren’t stereotypical overachievers or geeks and when they finally “cut loose”, they’re never crass or overly crazy or over-the-top.

Following on from her memorable supporting turn in Lady Bird, Beanie Feldstein takes command in her role of the “Alpha” friend Molly, proving herself equal to her brother Jonah Hill in comedic ability, and Kaitlyn Dever is equally as wild and lovably square as Amy, getting the majority of the slower, more tender scenes as she tries to hook up with the girl of her dreams. Because that’s another great thing about Booksmart: Amy is gay but it’s not made into a huge plot point, no part of the film has her attempting to “come to terms with her sexuality” (in the film, she’s been comfortably out for several years) and no uncomfortably raunchy jokes are made about it – just some genuinely funny scenes involving a toy panda and some “research” in the principal’s car. No, that’s not Cardi B.

The film also has a fun ensemble cast that includes Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Wilde’s husband Jason Sudekis, Maya Rudolph and a whole load of others who play the girls’ fellow classmates and they’re all a fun ol’ bunch.

One thing that most will appreciate is the film’s script, which is sharp, funny and heartfelt. True, on the surface Booksmart can be seen as a gender-reversed Superbad (school kids try to get to a party, there are obstacles in the way, there’s the inevitable fallout and subsequent reconciliation) and it somewhat follows a certain basic structural formula, but the film stands out by having a strong focus on character development and themes of friendship, including characters that, while initially appearing to be the kind of stock characters you’d find in a film like this (popular boy, the town bike, the “theatrical” types, the kooks, the weird, mysterious drug taking one) are actually quite deep and subvert expectations when you learn that there’s more to them than meets the eye. And it’s fun watching some of the male characters going a little too far in showing how “progressive” they are in front of the girls, randomly bringing up female empowerment in order to obviously show how good they are!

Olivia Wilde’s direction works well because she keeps the film moving at a good pace (though maybe it slows down a little too much towards the end), there’s a ideal blend of both drama and comedy, she makes sure there are plenty of effective close-ups of our beautiful leading ladies, and she uses slow motion at all the right times and directs the manically funny “doll sequence” with plenty of imagination and wit. Booksmart also looks really good as the cinematography is perfectly crisp, a few different locations are utilised throughout, and the accompanying soundtrack and score by Dan the Automator is effective.

Girl, you are WEARING that beret!

A fine addition to the coming-of-age genre, this is a (book)smart, fun and entertaining film with a solid story and a marvellous duo at the centre of it all.

★ ★ ★ ★

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