If the recent influx of actor-directed coming-of-age films is anything to go by, it should come as no surprise that Olivia Wilde finally gets to try her hand at directing with her debut Booksmart – and what a debut it is. Unlike recent coming-of-age films like Mid90s and Ladybird, Booksmart is not tinted by a sense of nostalgia, but is set confidently and irrevocably in the present. It captures what it’s like to be on the cusp of adulthood in 2019 with a great amount of empathy, charm and humour.
In Booksmart, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are celebrating their final day as seniors. The girls proudly consider themselves outsiders in their high school community, but with good cause: whilst the other students were mindlessly partying, Amy and Molly were sneaking into university libraries to study. That is until the penny drops – all the other kids got into good universities too. As a fellow classmate puts it: “I’m incredible at handjobs but I also got a 1560 on the SATs”. What follows is a chaotic odyssey across various parties as Amy and Molly desperately try to cram in one moment of reckless teenage partying before they are poised to graduate.
What is refreshing about Booksmart is that it has no real villains. Amy and Molly don’t need to prove to their classmates that geeks can be cool too, they need to realise that they are outcasts only by their own arrogant presumption that no one else took school seriously. Surprising, too, is the care given to fleshing out each of the students’ personalities, all of them quirky but amiable in their own way. Whilst the plot occasionally bends believability with the ridiculousness of its scenarios – one scene takes place on a luxurious party boat owned by a student – it never forgets that Amy and Molly are the core of its story, and the magnetic energy of their friendship is the guiding force of the film.
Considering the confidence with which Wilde wields different cinematic techniques it is surprising to learn that Booksmart is her directorial debut. A highlight here is a brilliantly bizarre sequence between two animated dolls, which showcases the film’s eccentric humour. On the other hand, the licenced rap soundtrack that plays throughout the film feels a little forced and on-the-nose, but is good for a few wacky gags.
Booksmart is a film that is intelligently anchored in the here and now, and treats its teenage characters with integrity and understanding. High schools in teen films are often portrayed as an almost fantastical space where great romantic tragedies occur and epic rivalries are forged, but Booksmart dares to suggest that sometimes, everyone can get along just fine.
[Amelie Voges – she/her – @amelieleav]