Review – Booksmart (2019)

by Old King Clancy

Going into Booksmart, I’d had the film on the edge of my radar, mostly due to it being the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, the strong reviews and was being touted as the female Superbad. This was a description I later found out was more apt than I initially thought with one of the lead actresses being Jonah Hill’s sister – but had I not been given a free ticket to see the film early, I might have waited before checking this one out. Instead, I’m going to use this platform to tell people to go out there and see this film because it’s a hilarious, dirty, and an unclichéd look into female friendships and the life of a modern high-school student that deserves more than just being called the female Superbad.

It’s the last day before Graduation and best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) – a loud and abrasive overachiever – and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) – a more timid lesbian who still hasn’t kissed a girl despite coming out – are preparing for life after high school. Molly as valedictorian is going to Yale, while Amy is taking a summer in Botswana to help the impoverished women. Both are seen as pretentious and nerdy by their more rowdy classmates which hasn’t phased them throughout their entire education, that is until Molly finds out that while her and Amy had ignored partying so they could focus on school and get into great colleges, their rowdy classmates who dicked around for years also got into those great schools.

Realizing that they’ve missed out on years of popularity and partying, the girls decide to go to the “Big Party,” the one where everyone who’s anyone will be going apeshit before they graduate the next day and never have a High-School party. There’s just one problem, neither of them know where the party is and nobody is giving them the address. What follows throughout the night is a selection of yacht related tragedies, ultra-gay murder mysteries, aux cable porn, and a drugged up sequence that needs to be seen to be believed.

While overall it’s a very simple story – the girls are just trying to get to this party and get sidetracked looking for the address – there’s a lot more going on under the surface, most notably we spend the vast majority of the first two acts getting to know the girls and understand their relationship, as strong and filthy as it was. Which meant that when the film hit its third act turn and things got WAY serious like a swift and violent kick to the gut, it hit so much harder and made the film that much better as a result. It might be clichéd to say the comedy film has a serious moment, but this does it so goddamn well that I didn’t mind.

Part of that is because of the characters and how well the film utilizes them. There’s a great balancing act the film does where it actively fights against clichés for certain characters, but embraces them when it makes sense. For example, the arguing duo of George (Noah Galvin) and Alan (Austin Crute) are flamboyant dramatic types who host murder mystery parties and cross-dress are hilarious in their over-the-top manner. While conversely smaller characters like the very pretty and very popular girl known only as ‘Triple-A’ (Molly Gordon) due to blowing three guys in her car, but rather than being pissed at the nickname she embraces her sexuality because she knows she has the brains to back up her future, so her present can be fun. Likewise, the hot but dumb jock type Nick (Mason Gooding) has a geekier side that plays against type, but even then he still has a few surprises up his sleeve. The strong rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo) is at first just an idiot used for comic relief, but he has more depth to him than you’d think.

To touch back on the Superbad comparison for a second, I think this film is lacking a breakout character like “McLovin,” but if anyone comes close it’s Gigi, played with surprisingly strong comic timing from Billie Lourd. Gigi enters the film as a rich-girl air-head and best friend to Jared, but as the film goes on she has this amazing running gaga where she’ll appear out of nowhere, often with some faux-wisdom – or at least what she assumes is wisdom – and will disappear just as quickly. Having not seen much of Lourd outside of Star Wars, it was a nice surprise to see her not only steal the film for best character, but clearly letting loose, and having a blast with the role.

With the two leads though, something special has definitely been found with both girls and they play off each other so damn well. Molly is arguably the more central of the two with her can-do attitude pushing them forward for the majority of the film. It’s a difficult line to balance and while the film never states that Molly is in the right for being as pushy as she is, Feldstein manages to keep Molly driven with just a little bit of selfishness to keep her feeling like a real person. For being presented as the nerdy type – the person that fist-bumps the librarian as they walk into the library – it’s was nice to see Molly have such a strong Type-A personality rather than being tucked away in the corner waiting for her confidence to shine because she already has it. In fact, her confidence is what kicks off the film and what brings it back round again once her and Amy have their blowout and both Molly and the audience re-evaluate what we know about her.

Speaking of which, Amy is the more wallflower of the two, confident in her own way but she’s along for the ride more than anything. What stands out primarily for her is that she’s an out lesbian who hasn’t had the courage to kiss another girl yet with a running gag being her complete lack of knowledge of how lesbian sex works. The whole situation is very refreshing partly because Amy’s lesbianism is played up for laughs, but never makes her the butt of the joke, just her inexperience, mostly because Amy is already out before the film begins, this isn’t about her learning she likes girls, this is about her taking the steps to embrace that she like girls. Feldstein might have the funnier lines, but Dever steals the film in its dramatic kick with her little girl lost expression and then the bathroom scene that follows, you can’t help but have your heart go out to her.

What absolutely makes the film is the relationship between the two girls, to the point where this might be the best example of female friendship I’ve seen in ages. They have these little quirks that can only come from knowing someone their entire life and it shines through here, be it their shared codeword for ‘I need you to back me up’, the way they over-complement each other, their little digs, and friendly insults to each other or their willingness to be as open and honest with each other about everything – I couldn’t stop laughing throughout the entire Panda conversation. It’s rare to see friendships portrayed like this, but they pulled it off spectacularly.

As mentioned earlier, this is the directorial debut from Olivia Wilde and for a first timer she does a pretty damn good job, the only criticism I can think of is that the editing can be a little jarring at times, but that’s not even close to being a deal-breaker. What stands out about the film is how well it captures life as a modern teenager, the same way American Pie did for the 90s and Superbad did for the 00s, here sexuality is open, the Ivy Leagues aren’t just for the smart kids, and Lyft drivers are often your high school principal. Obviously, given the circumstances this is a wilder night than anyone is likely to experience, but it captures those very real situations that people find themselves in, maybe not so much the accidental drug taking – seriously that whole scene is out of the blue and fantastic – but in the sense of being lost, both literally and figuratively, seeing everyone around you be so sure of themselves, and worrying that you’ve wasted all that time. It’s why the kick in the guts works so well because you’ve watched Molly and Amy try so hard to overcome that lost feeling and in one moment they’re worse off than when they started.

On a lighter note, the film is hilarious, and surprisingly raunchy as well with both Molly and Amy openly discussing sex like a couple of teenage boys, they argue about whether or not scissoring is a thing, they talk about their masturbation techniques (and failures) and at one point even casually watch porn together on their phone. A lot of the film’s funnier moments come from watching the girls be out of their element with each new party they end up at being stranger than the last – and somehow Gigi makes it to all of them – and then their attempts to find the address has them interact with a Pizza Delivery Guy who gives them sound advice on the dangers of approaching strangers. What’s great is that the film never goes for the cringe factor, you’re never left feeling uncomfortable for the characters and when you do, it’s done for sympathy rather than humor  – i.e. Amy’s disastrous time in party bathroom – but that doesn’t hold them back when it comes to sexual jokes, girls can just be as raunchy as boys, and they showcase that here brilliantly.

For not really knowing much about Booksmart, I’m so glad I saw it because this is probably gonna end up on my “Best Of 2019 List” by Year’s end. The story takes the concept of “The Big Party” and injects it with female camaraderie, serious guts kicks and stop-motion hallucinations, the acting is superb with Feldstein and Dever’s chemistry selling the hell out of their core relationship and the oddball supporting cast helping them shape this strange, hilarious world with special mention to Lourd’s Gigi for stealing the film out with her rich girl hippy bullshit. And for her first film, Olivia Wilde showcases a solid understanding of the modern life of teenage girls, sex comedies, and combines the two into something truly special. It deserves more than just being called the female Superbad, but it absolutely earns its place to be put alongside it.

I am giving Booksmart a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces! 


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