Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are two of their grade’s loudest achievers, seemingly destined for good colleges and bright futures since they started high school. Although the girls are best friends and cherish each other’s company, their dedication to their studies has come at the expense of active social lives. Upon learning that some classmates have been just as successful despite going out every weekend, Molly understandably begins to doubt the path she’s chosen.
If you’ve never found yourself in that exact situation, you can probably think of someone from the year you graduated who fits the profile (even just in general, FOMO is a painfully relatable feeling). BOOKSMART takes this idea in a more personal direction than you might expect, with the fear being recast as whether Molly and Amy are seen for who they really are, rather than, for instance, popular kids not thinking they’re cool. Subsequently, the pair embark on a mission to attend the classic ‘night before graduation house party’ that only exists in films, but once again, the journey they take to get there is anything but ordinary.
While Molly and Amy have occasional disagreements throughout the film, BOOKSMART shines by never taking their bond for granted. Instead of simply telling us the girls are inseparable, there are myriad small moments which offer further insight into their dynamic, like showering the other with exaggerated compliments when they reveal their outfits for the party (without even mentioning they’re wearing the same thing), or having secret code words for when they need support no questions asked. It’s an all-time great portrayal of lived-in friendship, with the script never needing to justify this behaviour; in fact, it’s used to cringeworthy, hilarious effect by having Amy’s parents assume the pair are a couple.
Yet despite Feldstein and Dever being brilliantly game for every scenario they’re thrown in together, separating them for a few pivotal scenes allows each to stand out on her own too. The characters have distinct arcs, though Amy’s struggle to overcome her anxiety is admittedly a little more interesting than Molly learning to not be so controlling. Perhaps most importantly for a comedy, both actors are also effortlessly funny, from their bizarre facial expressions brought on by a bad drug trip, to the film’s many, many one-liners.
Much like Superbad did for Jonah Hill (real life brother of Feldstein) and Michael Cera, BOOKSMART should make Feldstein and Dever into bona fide stars. Likewise, Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo are standouts among the supporting cast, arguably because their characters receive the most screen time out of Molly and Amy’s classmates. However, this shouldn’t suggest that the minor characters needed more attention. By contrast, almost every named student not only has a clear personality, but cleverly subverted my expectations of them; in reality, there’s no reason a jock wouldn’t also be a big Harry Potter fan. Building on the adage of not judging books by their covers, BOOKSMART’s characters are living reminders that people’s identities are constantly developing and shouldn’t be pigeonholed at a young age.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to forget this film is the work of a first-time director. We’re in something of a renaissance for actors moving behind the camera (Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig and Bradley Cooper being the most high-profile examples) and Wilde is the latest to make the jump with a clear vision. Having starred in plenty of comedies herself, it’s no surprise Wilde knows when to linger on a joke, such as Molly and Amy dancing in the street on the way to school, or pull back and let it speak for itself (once again, the script is packed with one-liners, but ending with a smash cut following a particularly exuberant outburst was a personal highlight for me).
Similarly, there are creative flourishes during the film’s subtler moments which I wouldn’t have anticipated from a debut. For instance, a panic attack Amy has at the party is depicted as a quietly terrifying out-of-body experience, with the set becoming blurred and labyrinthine around her. Although I won’t say any more to keep BOOKSMART’s most enjoyable surprises intact, the sheer number of set pieces Wilde readily adapts to, is impressive.
It’ll be a shame if we start to see less of Olivia Wilde as an actor, after all (very mild spoiler warning?), she doesn’t even make a cameo appearance here. Given how much BOOKSMART gets right, though, her future as a director seems as bright as it does inevitable. As I mentioned above, the lead performances should likewise be career-making for Feldstein and Dever, who embody so much of what makes the film a sheer delight to watch. I found myself smiling constantly throughout, and suspect I’ll be rewatching and recommending it for years to come.
Booksmart opens theatrically in Australia on July 11, 2019.