There’s nothing new about the high school buddy flick; teens have been embarrassing themselves on screen for decades in a bid to scale the social ladder. The dreaded senior-itis is ripe for comedy, and actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde delivers her take on the one last high school hurrah in the form of the wickedly fun Booksmart. What sets Wilde’s film apart from the rest is its refreshingly honest perspective on teen girl archetypes and the insurmountable pressure put on girls to have it all in an education system that would pit them against each other.
Best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have dedicated their school years to what they do best: getting top grades, ass-licking their teachers, and pulling all-nighters in the library with their fake college IDs. This fool-proof regime has secured them the dream of coveted places at Ivy League universities for the fall. However, uptight senior class president Molly is delivered a crushing blow when she realises that the cool kids who partied all year have also got in to top colleges. What dawns on the pair is the impossible notion that you can be both fun and smart; something that Molly and Amy have one last night to achieve. They make a pact to lose their swot status by hitting popular kid Nick’s house party and breaking as many rules as possible on their last night of senior year. The two set out to party with a strict game plan, but as one might expect, things go awry almost immediately.
Booksmart is nothing short of hilarious. Jointly penned by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susannah Fogel, and Katie Silberman, the screenplay is bursting with energy and calculated gags that never miss their mark. The script’s success lies in its honesty and ability to juggle the utter embarrassment of slapstick social faux pas with some real shrewd commentary on the expectations these girls have to live up to. We’re not laughing at Molly and Amy so much as with them; the jokes are so brutal because they hit so close to home for anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to step inside a high school hallway. Amy in particular, as a hopeless young lesbian, struck a painful chord within me as she struggles to style out her crush on cute skater girl Ryan, desperate not to graduate never having kissed a girl.
Beanie Feldstein rules as Molly, a preppy, overbearing leader and staunch feminist with a seemingly indestructible sense of self that starts to chip away as events begin to spiral beyond her control. Kaitlyn Dever, meanwhile, is bumbling and awkward as Amy, unsure of her place in the social order other than stuck firmly to her best friend’s side. The night proves formative in a very different way for Amy, as she dares to make her romantic advances. However, as things heat up, Molly and Amy go from best friends who candidly discuss their masturbatory exploits to questioning whether they really know each other at all.
The film thrives on the chemistry of its two leads, fleshed out by a host of supporting performances by classmates that don’t feel shoehorned in but are rather allowed to have their own important character arcs. Billie Lourd makes a baffling but perfect appearance as the eccentric Gigi, perpetually tripping and servicing the plot little but somehow stealing every scene she’s in. Molly Gordon stars as Molly and Amy’s worst nightmare, nicknamed “Triple A” for her notoriously indecent ‘roadside assistance.’ As caricature as they sound, none of these characters are left reduced to their archetypes. Booksmart is essentially proof that girls can be selfish, vulgar, petty, and so much more, whilst still demanding respect. These characteristics are ultimately what humanise the characters, rather than providing the lazy punchline.
What transpires is a cautionary tale about the hazard of judging your peers and trying to be someone you’re not, but instead of being self-righteous the film nails its message with the perfect balance of humour and sincerity. All in all, Booksmart is one hell of a trip that will make those older and wiser of us both a little nostalgic for high school drama, whilst also really glad those tragic years are behind us. I laughed, I cried, I cringed, and I want to live it all over again.
by Megan Wilson
Meg (she/her) is a northern Film Studies grad with an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture, now working in secondary education in London. When not wrangling her cats or playing football, she dreams of being a professor and writing endless books on lesbian cinema just because she can. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she’ll always have a soft spot for Matilda. Find her on Twitter.