The coming-of-age genre has had its highs and lows in the past decade, in addition to several gems in the rough. One such gem comes out this weekend in the form of Booksmart, the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, and it succeeds as a film that sets another standard for female filmmaking and mid-budget cinema thanks to creative direction, sharp writing and solid performances from its diverse ensemble cast.
For straight-A students Amy and Molly, there’s one night left before high school graduation, and they look to go out with a bang by attending the greatest party of their lives.
If there’s one matter in this current era of cinema that can be considered as overlooked, it’s the state of filmmaking’s middle class. More often that not, it feels like the only movies that Hollywood wants to make, let alone produce a profit, range from blockbuster franchises based on superheroes like the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and remakes of classic horror movies, such as Halloween and the upcoming It: Chapter Two, to ultra-small budget independent films like Hereditary and Eighth Grade. One of the few remaining studios dedicating itself to keeping mid-budget filmmaking alive today is Annapurna Pictures. Founded in 2011 by Megan Ellison, the company started its foray into the movie business by financing projects from filmmaking auteurs that major studios balked on, convinced they wouldn’t make a profit, with those examples being The Master for Paul Thomas Anderson in 2012 and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in 2013.
In recent years, Annapurna Pictures has elected to expand their reach by going from film financier to distributor, and while their output has remained consistently fantastic (most notably with The Sisters Brothers, Detroit, and If Beale Street Could Talk), it has mostly struggled to make a profit, with their only hit being the absurdist dystopia Sorry To Bother You. But a partnership with MGM led the two mid-major studios to resurrect United Artists in the form of a distribution banner, and a film Annapurna hopes to turn their box office woes into fortune is Booksmart, the directorial debut from actress Olivia Wilde. Thankfully, the film lives up to the hype as one of the best comedies of the year thanks to hilarious dialogue, strong acting from its leads, inventive direction from Wilde, and its use of absurdist elements to create a realistic portrayal of the high school experience.
Booksmart follows best friends for life Amy and Molly (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, respectively), who have excelled in their studies to the point where they’re poised to go to their dream Ivy League colleges, but at the expense of their standing amongst their extroverted peers, who consider them nerdy, shy and studious. While out lesbian Amy longs to tell her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) how she feels about her, Molly overhears her fellow students making fun of her, and learns that the classmates she perceived as rebels and partiers are not only as studious as she is, but also going to expensive but prestigious universities themselves.
Now feeling like she’s missed out on a complete high school experience with one day to go before graduation, Molly convinces normally-reserved Amy to join her at a party hosted by her crush Nick (Mason Gooding) for one epic hangout with their peers before either of them learn the party’s address. What follows is a night-long odyssey full of discoveries, revelations and a plethora of eccentric characters the life-long friends meet with every incredible length they go just to get to the greatest party of their young lives.
What sounds like your straightforward coming-of-age high school story on paper is presented in a way that’s fresh and engaging thanks to the stellar direction at the reins of Booksmart. In her first feature, Olivia Wilde succeeds in balancing authentic realism of the high school experience in contemporary California with elements of chaotic absurdism. As far as realism goes, the student body goes to a school where it’s okay to be who you are regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation, and the diverse cast of characters delivers each line of dialogue in a way that keeps the constant energy of the film’s pacing going in a natural flow. The content of Booksmart does veer toward the obscene, but it’s written in a lighthearted manner that’s fresh and original for the genre and never feels preachy.
Meanwhile, the absurdism manifests itself in the film’s portrayal of peer pressure; the chaos that ensues once the final bell rings on the last day of school finds the student body celebrating in a monsoon of glitter, while poor Molly is soaked from a hailstorm of condoms filled with water, endearing her to the audience through emphasizing her insecurities and fears of missing out. The absurdism extends its presence throughout Booksmart in each stop Amy and Molly make on the trip to their party, whether it be a lavish soiree on a cruise ship where they’re the only guests, or a Lyft ride decorated in a mess of Christmas lights and orange decor, or even a drug trip that turns them into Barbie dolls.
Booksmart is a hilarious comedy first and foremost, but the dramatic beats of the film subtly unfold as the film progresses in creative ways; characters are framed in tight close-ups to amplify overbearing personas and social demands, while a brief but beautiful scene frames Amy underwater in a pool, swimming between and around the party guests that surround her in pursuit for the object of her desire. Amy and Molly also exchange hilarious banter over the course of the film, and that’s aided by the strength and chemistry of the actresses playing them.
Feinstein portrays Molly with a heap of infectious and resilient energy while Dever is perfect as Amy, her reluctant, reserved foil that goes along for the ride as long as she is prepared. Other strong comedians that populate the ensemble of Booksmart include Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s loving and supportive parents, Jason Sudeikis as their high school principal and Billie Lourd as Gigi, the ultimate party crasher.
As hilarious and endearing as Booksmart is, there are several jokes a minute. So many, in fact, that it’s easy to miss other lines of dialogue or an absurdist detail happening in the background of the school’s hallways from time to time. It’s also worth debating that some more bumps in the road for Amy and Molly before the second-act revelation would be welcome in the film’s narrative, if only because it takes a while for the film to slow down and take a turn for the dramatic. That having been said, more conflict, at least in the form of bullies and cliques, would have killed the originality that director Wilde and the female team of writers behind the screenplay have brought to the coming-of-age genre.
Booksmart is raunchy, yet heartfelt, and absurdist, but realistic all at once. Audiences will be in hysterics over Amy and Molly trading secrets about their favorite sex toys over the years and interrogating a pizza delivery man for the address to Nick’s party, and empathize with them as they feel the concerns of everyday youth, which are serious in their slightness (this critic fears being stranded with a phone on 2% battery, imagine a female adolescent in that scenario!). It’s a solid turn for Wilde as a director, an achievement for everyone involved, and makes another case for the importance of not only supporting films directed by women, but mid-budget cinema altogether. That’s why this holiday weekend, it’d be the smart thing to go see Booksmart.