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Review: Booksmart

Andrew Young reviews Olivia Wilde's debut that is nothing short of fantastic; a joyous rite-of-passage film with a strong directorial voice.

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For some time now ‘Film Twitter’ has been abuzz with the news that Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is nothing short of fantastic. Reviews coming in from South by Southwest Festival and since have suggested that the film may well measure up to be one of the all-time great teen movies. For followers of festival chatter, then, anticipation will be pretty high for Booksmart’s release. Mercifully, the hype is deserved, the film is a blast, and everyone involved has done a magnificent job.

You know that familiar story of teenagers setting out to lose their virginities, finding hilarious stumbling blocks along the way, and ultimately learning something about themselves and their friends? Well in that respect Booksmart can be considered a movie about two girls losing their hedonism virginity. In fact, rather refreshingly, the girls actual virginities are rarely discussed; shockingly, it’s almost as if the V-plate label doesn’t actually matter to these teens. Sex and high-school crushes are present here, of course, but they are not what the film is centrally about.

What drives the plot is the friendship between intelligent, hardworking best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). After Molly discovers that the hard-partying sections of the school populous have also managed to gain places at the likes of Yale and Harvard, she realises that her and Amy’s dedicated anti-frivolity stance may not have been entirely necessary. Whilst Molly and Amy love each other’s company, everybody else views them as the school’s resident killjoys. The pair therefore decide to attend the hottest graduation party in town, proving once and for all ‘that they are fun’.

The teen movie genre is no stranger to a star-making turn. Just think of Matthew Broderick’s iconic turn as Ferris Bueller or, more recently, the emergence of a pre-Oscar Emma Stone as she brought charisma galore to Easy A. With any justice Feldstein and Dever will be joining that list. Anyone who saw Lady Bird will recognise Beanie Feldstein’s bright comedic presence, and thankfully here she is allowed to bring it front and centre. With type-A Molly she gets the chance to use her sharp tongue to denounce the slackers as well as show her emotional range as panic sets in when Molly begins to question her life decisions. Kaitlyn Dever, as Anna, is perhaps the less eye-catching of the pair but brings a dramatic weight and anxiety to the role that nicely offsets the pair’s quick banter. Feldstein and Dever’s performances soar highest when they are together. They lived together during filming and reputedly became close friends. Their chemistry is clear, with the constant support and love that Molly and Amy show each other coming across as wholly genuine.

The film is built upon a sharp, funny script from Katie Silberman that puts unashamedly smart women at the forefront. Silberman navigates through high-school life and the anxieties of the teenage years with joke after joke that doesn’t just poke fun at its characters but allows them to be funny themselves. It is a script that revels in the strengths of its own creations. One of Booksmart’s greatest assets is its use of a strong ensemble cast. In Wilde’s high-school world we see the usual cool kids, nerds, and alt-girls, but Silberman’s script and the energy and sincerity the actors bring elevates each of these archetypes above dull cliché. Admittedly, there is little depth given to many of the supporting players, but there is enough sweetness and genuine warmth to the film to make us care about this group of 18 year-olds, even if the film does not allow them a lot of screen time. In fact, one of Silberman and Wilde’s biggest achievements with the narrative is to keep a tight enough focus on Molly and Amy’s personal adventure to propel the film forward with great urgency, whilst also allowing the film to breathe, giving each minor character enough space to impart a convincing sense of the environment Molly and Amy operate in.

Among the standout supporting players are Billie Lourd and Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo as “the one per cent”. The former routinely pops up to steal scene after scene with manic energy and hilarious over-the-top shenanigans. Gisondo, meanwhile, nails the subtleties of the rather sweet Jared, who hides his true self behind mountains and mountains of money because life, and perhaps high-school movies themselves, have taught him that wealth and popularity go hand in hand. When Molly points out that you can’t buy people’s affections, Jared’s response epitomises his mixture of sadness and bubbly optimism: “I think you’ll find you can; my parents did it.”

A strong, witty script and charismatic performances are par for the course in this genre; what makes Booksmart stand out is the distinctive aesthetic Wilde brings to it. After rising to prominence in House and popping up in many films, she is best known as an actress, but has recently been learning the tricks of the directing trade with several shorts and music videos. Scoring her action to a contemporary soundtrack of R&B and hip-hop beats, Wilde moves the film along with tremendous pace, giving the girls’ adventure a sense of urgency and resulting in consistently compelling viewing. There is a striking amount of visual flair present too, with Wilde making use of slow-motion, close-up and one great fantasy sequence to add a sense of wild fun to proceedings. For a feature directorial debut, this is a markedly confident work from Wilde with a strong directorial voice.

The film is not without the odd misstep, such as a superfluous and somewhat misjudged sub-plot with a teacher, and a slightly over-the-top end to the night for Anna. Yet for the vast majority this really is excellent stuff. With a warmth and respect for its smart and confident female leads, as well as for everyone around them, Booksmart is a joyous rite-of- passage party film that is consistently funny, with a timeless central friendship at its core. With Silberman’s superb script and a winning cast, Olivia Wilde was all set to make a good film; with the directorial flair she adds to Booksmart, she may just have made a great one.

Editor's note: The film was screened at City Screen York 

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