Review: Olivia Wilde's Debut Comedy 'Booksmart' Makes the Grade
by Adam Frazier
May 23, 2019
Olivia Wilde. The American actress, who derived her stage name from Irish author Oscar Wilde, is best known for her roles on television series including "The O.C." and "House", and in films like Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Year One, In Time, Drinking Buddies, and Rush. Now, the talented star of stage and screen is working behind the camera. After directing the shorts Free Hugs (2011), Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros: No Love Like Yours (2016), and Red Hot Chili Peppers: Dark Necessities (2016), Wilde is making her feature-length directorial debut with Booksmart, an uproarious and unfiltered coming-of-age comedy that's equal parts Superbad, Lady Bird, Can't Hardly Wait, and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, filled to the brim with a bevy of top-notch performances from an ensemble of young, up-and-coming stars.
Kaitlyn Dever (of Short Term 12, Men, Women & Children, and Beautiful Boy) and Beanie Feldstein (of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Lady Bird) star as Amy and Molly, academic overachievers and besties who, on the eve of their high school graduation, decide to break free from the shackles of scholarship and cram four years of teenage debauchery into a night they'll never forget. After learning that her peers got into Ivy League schools despite their hard-partying ways, the Yale-bound Molly convinces the by-the-book Amy to accompany her to their classmate Nick's (Mason Gooding) graduation bash. Amy, who's going to Columbia in the fall, reluctantly agrees because it might be her last opportunity to hook-up with her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). There's just one little problem – they don't know how to get there.
In desperate need of a good time, Amy and Molly journey through the dark heart of the San Fernando Valley in search of Nick's aunt's house. From a swanky yacht party with the ostentatious Jared (Skyler Gisondo of "Santa Clarita Diet") and his uninhibited partner-in-crime Gigi (Billie Lourd) to a murder mystery soirée with aspiring thespians George (Noah Galvin of Assassination Nation) and Alan (Austin Crute) to inappropriate Lyft rides and run-ins with sketchy pizza guys ("SNL's" Mike O'Brien), there are plenty of detours along the way. In the spirit of buddy cop movies like Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon, Amy and Molly are partners who have each other's backs no matter what goes down, and they won't stop until they've experienced the best Crockett High School has to offer.
Co-written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, Booksmart is an endearing exploration of female friendship and one of the funniest movies of the year. Casting Director Allison Jones has an eye for young actors that exude authenticity, and the cast assembled here is no exception. Amy and Molly share an intense bond, and the chemistry between Dever and Feldstein makes for the best on-screen pairing since Michael Cera and Feldstein's brother, Jonah Hill, in 2007's Superbad. Equally great is the ensemble, with Skyler Gisondo and Billie Lourd delivering breakout performances. If you only know Lourd from her limited roles in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, prepare yourself for her star-making turn as she channels Kate Hudson's Penny Lane from Almost Famous to create Gigi, the ultimate party girl. As great as Dever and Feldstein are, I would love to see an extra Booksmart spin-off that follows Gigi as she wreaks havoc at parties throughout the Valley.
Like the screenwriters, it's clear that Wilde has an intuitive sense about the characters and their friendships. Having worked on improv-heavy films like Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, she has an ear for what feels real; every scene is punctuated with emotional and comedic moments that deepen your investment in the characters and their journey. Wilde has an eye for the cinematic as well, creating a visually ambitious film with the help of production designer Katie Byron, costume designer April Napier, and cinematographer Jason McCormick. Booksmart captures this awkward, confusing, and yet still pivotal time of a teenager’s life perfectly while giving older, more nostalgic moviegoers an opportunity to reflect on our younger years and how the friendships we made shaped who we are today.
While somewhat derivative – it's hard not to compare the film to Superbad or any of the aforementioned teen comedies – Wilde's Booksmart is a raunchy, over-the-top teen fantasy about female friendship and the optimism of youth, with fantastic performances and some of the biggest laughs you'll have in a theater all year. As a first-time feature director, Wilde makes a big impression with a confident debut that makes all the right moves. If you're looking for a break from this summer's glut of computer-generated spectacles and violent action flicks, Booksmart offers heart and humor in equal measure.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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