Director: Olivia Wilde
Screenwriters: Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Victoria Ruesga, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga, Austin Crute, Noah Galvin
Olivia Wilde’s ebullient directorial debut Booksmart is the coming-of-age comedy we’ve been lusting for over much of the past decade, this picture’s strong and tasteful mix of characters working to compliment the progressive themes of this genuinely funny, hearty and at times downright emotional movie headlined by two superlative performances. Not since Superbad has the genre delivered such a bonafide classic.
Centred on two female graduates in the final days of their high school tenure, Booksmart brings together the coming of age comedy genre’s most recognisable tropes – most obviously an upper middle class representation of school life that is free from consequences, other than those we can see are personal to the protagonists at least – and evolves it beyond its previous boundaries to forge something altogether more modern, inclusive and timely. Wilde isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with Booksmart, but she is providing it with a much needed hardware update, the film’s matter-of-fact presentation of feminist ideologies and the celebratory means through which it presents the protagonists’ classmates encapsulating the togetherness that is central to its purpose.
Beyond purpose and ideology, though always intertwined with both, is the fact that Booksmart is a well-paced and importantly hilarious mix of character-driven and plot-driven cinema, the fantasy-level scenarios that the two leads must endure (to reach their ultimate goal of attending the last party of high school) making for hilarious situational comedy but never taking away from the glowing bond between the film’s two best friends at its heart; the strong characterisations and performances of which burst to prominence in the movie’s most heart-wrenching moment, Wilde choosing this pivotal story-beat to leave the film void of sound, forcing us to question ourselves and those we’ve hurt through our own outbursts in a moment that is transcendent of the genre and altogether encapsulating of Booksmart’s maturity.
Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, who play the two best friends at the heart of the movie, work to push this moment, and the entire film for that matter, into a stratospheric position for its genre, grounding the material in an innocence and immaturity that never feels condescending while simultaneously gifting it well-steered acting choices and some of the best comedic timing in any film in 2019. Dever and Feldstein make you care for their characters through their incomparable chemistry and their lovable individuality, making for a leading duo that, whether you know characters like them in the real world or not, are worth every second you spend with them and then some.
Secondary characters in Booksmart are also cleverly formulated to subvert expectations (both within the genre and within traditional storytelling) and are importantly shown to break free of the restrictions that their stereotypes present, the very act of developing them from much-seen jocks, skaters and theatre-geeks to altogether more rounded people being as much about presenting a better picture as it is a way of calling out the genre for its outdated tropes and premises, and thus firmly stating “what you used to do is no longer acceptable”. It is this progressive and altogether more identifiable presentation that gifts the film its sense of togetherness; a feeling that cannot be shaken in the hours that follow the viewing experience. Not since Mean Girls has a film of its type featured so many important smaller roles, many of which will likely follow those in Tina Fey’s indelible classic in becoming icons of a generation.
Recent years have seen a reclamation of the coming-of-age comedy genre from the pits of cinematic purgatory, but even with the critical successes that were Blockers (2018), Love, Simon (2018) and The Edge of Seventeen (2016), there has never been a clearer sign of the genre’s reemergence than in the every inch of on-screen success that is Booksmart. This inclusive, progressive, fantastically well performed, sensationally orchestrated, hilarious comedy is the American coming-of-age comedy of the decade, a contemporary classic of the genre.