Review: Booksmart

Olivia Wilde delivers an authentic, female-led coming of age tale.

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a fresh, female-led, spin on the coming of age tale. Arguably one of 2019’s best comedies, Booksmart demonstrates how being young can be a painful yet hilarious experience. By successfully blending tales of raucous adventures and responsibility, Booksmart illuminates the emotional pains associated with teenage friendship and the transition into adulthood.

On the eve of their graduation, two socially awkward best friends feel content about their success at prioritising studying over partying. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is headed to Yale and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is spending the summer in Botswana doing charity work, before attending Columbia in the Autumn. They have fake IDs, used to study in a 24-hour library, and they idolise their driven, feminist role models. However, on realisation that their rowdy classmates will also be attending Ivy League universities, Molly and Amy become desperate to prove that they can be both “smart and fun.”

Booksmart is authentic, innovative and subtly subversive. This sharp, funny script utilises the development of Molly and Amy’s friendship as its core narrative. They only have one night to catch up on four years of recklessness, but this experience of curiosity, lust, and insecurity must be overcome together. Their relationship is presented without cliché as their sarcastic humour and ferocious compliments form a friendship essential to each other’s support system.

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As Molly and Amy encounter an accidental drug trip through the perspective of Barbie dolls, their perfectly pitched awkward social ability prevents the film from slipping towards parody. Furthermore, the script handles the modern young woman seriously – a task that has resulted in patronising presentations of teenagers in multiple other coming-of-age films. The film successfully nods to the impact of the #MeToo era, as well as changing attitudes towards consent, party culture, and sexuality. As a queer woman, Amy is not only normalised but celebrated. Like any other teenager, she is just looking for love.

Feldstein and Dever deliver loveable performances devoid of the predictable characteristics typically associated with teenage girls. Their shining, charming chemistry makes Molly and Amy’s friendship completely believable. Social vulnerability defines this portrayal of two intelligent, brave girls intent on living their best lives. Feldstein and Dever’s caustic, witty delivery compliments their character’s observational skill. Plus their flair for self-deprecating comedy indicates both their wits and insecurity. An excellent supporting cast compliments Booksmart’s quirky narrative, noticeably Jason Sudeikis as the girls’ unfortunate principal, and Billie Lourd as a mischievous, fairy godmother-like figure.

Most importantly, this is a male dominated genre transformed into a story about young women, told and directed by women. Wilde provides her female characters with the opportunity to have the kind of fun that male characters have explored for years. In the fashion of Superbad and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Molly and Amy test the limits of the ‘one wild night’ motif as they encounter a variety of comic disruptions. Booksmart is also much less obsessed with sex, preferring to deconstruct the complexities and contradictions of female friendship.

Dan the Automator’s score deserves special recognition. A debut for his first major US film, the score beautifully captures the anxiety and wonder of teenage life. Furthermore, a soundtrack comprising of the likes of Lizzo and Alanis Morrisette pulls audiences, from different stages of life, back to their own high school experiences.

Not only does Wilde challenge and transform social expectations, she presents herself as witty director capable of producing a sharp, fresh comedy in a popular, well-trodden genre.

– Jaimie Hampton

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