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Josh Reviews Booksmart

February 14th, 2020
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Booksmart depicts the last 24 hours of high school for best friends Molly and Amy.  The two girls have worked hard in high school and gotten into good colleges.  But when Molly realizes that the party-loving classmates she always looked down on were also able to get into good colleges, without sacrificing fun the way she and Amy did, she is horrified.  She decides that she and Amy have to have some fun on their last night before graduation, so they make a plan to attend fellow classmate Nick’s house-party.  But getting there won’t be as easy as they think, and a wild night of shenanigans ensues.

Booksmart is the first film directed by Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Cowboys & Aliens, Drinking Buddies, Her).  Ms. Wilde has done a terrific job; you’d never know this is her first feature.  She’s able to get tremendous performances out of her ensemble of young actors.

Beanie Feldstein was terrific in Neighbors 2 and Lady Bird, and she does a great job in her co-leading role here.  She’s very funny, and she is excellent at playing super-intense.  Her performance here skirts the edge of being a bit one-note with her self-superior attitude in the film’s early going, but Ms. Feldstein is always able to keep this character funny and real.

The film’s biggest discovery, for me at least, was co-lead Katlyn Dever as Amy.  Wow, I was bowled over by how great Ms. Dever was in the film.  Whereas Ms. Feldstein was playing something of a caricature (albeit a very funny one), Ms. Dever’s Amy felt incredibly real.  I really admired her subtle, naturalistic performance.  For much of the film, Ms. Dever’s Amy is the straight-person to Ms. Feldstein’s Molly, but when the time comes, Ms. Dever kills in some comedic moments in the film’s second half.  And both she and Ms. Feldstein are fantastic in a wrenchingly intense argument the two girls have late in the film.  (That moment is an interesting gear-shift from raunchy comedy into real drama.  It’d be easy to screw up, but Ms. Wilde and her actors sell the moment, and make it into one of the most memorable moments of the film for me.)  I love that Amy’s sexual orientation is treated as a complete non-issue by the film, and all of the characters in it.

Ms. Wilde has assembled a strong supporting cast.  I wish they were all better fleshed out, as I’d have loved to have been allowed to get to know these kids surrounding Molly and Amy on a deeper level in the film.  But the cast does solid work with what they’re given.  Billie Lourd (who has popped up in the Star Wars sequel trilogy as Lieutenant Connix) is very funny as Gigi, a wild, ethereal young woman who continues to cross paths with Molly and Amy all night long.  Molly Gordon plays a girl nicknamed “Triple A”; she starts off the film as a mean girl, but Ms. Gordon is terrific in a late-in-the-film scene in a car that shows us that her character has far more depth.  Victoria Ruesga is memorable as Ryan, the girl who Amy is crushing on.  Mason Gooding perfectly captures the good-natured but dim Nick, Molly’s nemesis/crush.  Skyler Gisondo brings charm to the painfully awkward, super-wealthy Jared.  Diana Silver plays the above-it-all Hope, who winds up with an unexpected connection to Amy.  Austin Crute and Noah Galvin play a theatre-loving duo.  Those were the kids who must stuck out to me, but the whole ensemble is fantastic.  There are also some big-name adults in small supporting roles.  Jessica Williams (The Daily Show) plays Miss Fine, the teacher who seems a little too friendly with some of the students.  Jason Sudeikis plays the beleaguered Principal Brown.  Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte play Amy’s very weird, very wholesome parents.

The film has a great soundtrack, with some very funny soundtrack-related jokes.  (Many characters get a few seconds of character-specific music on the soundtrack when they enter the film; these moments made me laugh.)  I also have to highlight the terrific music-related jokey set-piece when Molly first sees Nick when she finally arrives at his house-party; the film suddenly shifts into Molly’s psyche, showing us her and Nick engaged in a waltz around his house.  I thought that was fantastic.

I’ve seen Booksmart on a lot of best of 2019 lists, so I was eager to check it out, having missed it in theaters this past summer.  I enjoyed the film, though I’m shocked it’s made so many best-of-the-year lists.  I thought it was fun and silly, with some great performances from the kids in the film.  But one of the best films of the year?  I’m not sure what I’m missing.

I love the idea of a female Superbad, and I appreciate that this film is a little more grounded than that seminal film was.  The two leads are very strong.  It’s fantastic to see this type of story told from a female perspective, with female main characters and a female director.  But the film never reached the comedic highs, for me, of a film like Superbad — nor was the drama as real or the characters as interesting as they were in other great coming-of-age films from the past few years, films like Lady Bird, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Way Way Back, or The Spectacular Now, to name just a few.  There were also a number of moments of extreme unreality that kept pulling me out of the film.  The depiction of the last day of school in the film’s first half-hour felt wildly unrealistic to me, with kids going insane in the school hallways, throwing water balloons, using fire extinguishers to propel themselves on skateboards, etc.  It was such a hollywoodized version of the last day of school!  Is the last day of school actually like this anywhere in the U.S.?  I was also surprised by the complete absence of any parents in the lives of these seemingly upper middle class kids.  Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte are in two short scenes as Amy’s parents, and then are never heard from again, and we never see Molly’s parents.  All sorts of crazy incidents befall the kids, including one of them winding up in jail, and yet no parent ever gets involved.  Since Molly and Amy are straight-arrow kids, why doesn’t any adult seem remotely concerned that they are missing from the start of the graduation ceremony?  These issues niggled at me.

Am I judging this film too harshly?  I’m questioning myself here.  It’s probably been a decade since I’ve seen Superbad, but did I have a similar problem with that film’s many insane flights of fancy?  I don’t believe so; I guess I’d have to rewatch it to be sure.  I don’t want to think I’m being more critical of a female-fronted film than a male one.  I don’t think I am.  Frankly, I think the opposite is true.  I was really excited to see this female-focused film, and I went in with high hopes.  My memory of Superbad is hazy, but I think that because that film was more clearly a crazy comedy that it was easier to forgive the lapses in plot logic, whereas because Booksmart still has one foot in character drama, some of those issues bugged me more.  Also, as I’d mentioned, I don’t think Booksmart hits the comedic high-points that Superbad did; I think when a movie is able to be supremely fall-on-the-floor funny that it’s easy to overlook other problems with the story.

Give this film a chance and judge it for yourself!  I certainly found a lot to enjoy.  And many critics went crazy for this film, so maybe I’m wrong on this one…!

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