Every generation has a coming-of-age film that transcends age and time because they mean as much to the current generation as they do to the prior generations. For my folks, their generation was marked by American Graffiti, for my brother, it was The Breakfast Club. I somehow slipped in between generations, but because I’m closer in age to my sister, ours really is Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone or American Pie. The generation now has that special film, and it is Booksmart.
In fact, there’s a scene in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut where she pays homage to American Pie in a completely unique way, and that’s the key to this smarter-than-your-average-bear comedy: it doesn’t mind the fact that it is pretentious because it knows that it is so much more than the sum of its parts.
There’s that word that so many friends use to describe film snobs. It’s a term meant to show elitism where none is really implied. This fits Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird), our two central characters.
The screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman paints a picture of high school that anyone can relate to as Molly, the student body president, and her best friend, Amy, are ready to go out in to the world.
In a rite-of-passage that I think most high school aged students go through, Amy and Molly realize they need to endure the one thing that has eluded them throughout their school careers: a party. Amy needs it to validate something in her life, namely a crush by the name of Ryan and Molly needs to do it to validate her own self-worth and because she has designs on her fellow vice president, the jocular Nick (Mason Gooding).
There’s just one, small problem. They don’t have the address to the party.
A scene in the school bathroom really illuminated the trials and tribulations that the current generation face. There is a fearless determination in how peers treat one another and that resonates throughout the entire story, in both the character arcs and the overall narrative.
Booksmart’s script and Olivia Wilde’s direction really create a rich, well-nuanced world of high schoolers on the cusp of their greatest adventure where the characters drive the story forward. Jared (Skyler Gisondo) reminded me of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Then there’s George (Noah Galvin) who hosts a Clue-like dinner party for his thespian friends. He’s loud, out and proud and it was a breath of fresh air. Jason Sudeikis plays the principal, Jordan Brown. He has a small and hilarious cameo, which felt a bit preachy, but was nevertheless an important point.
There’s an ongoing prank throughout Booksmart with Gigi (Billie Lourde) that, by the time we hit the third act got a bit repetitive. However, the way the script pulled her character off, it remains a highlight of the film.
Amy and Molly do eventually find the party. Their realization at the end of the night is something that transcends generations. The commencement speech that Thornton Mellon gives at the end of Back to School rings just as true today as it did in the late 1980’s.
Booksmart reminded me of my days in high school. I had friends and acquaintances. I didn’t know who I really was, but I knew what I wanted to do. Much like Amy and Molly, I didn’t party throughout high school and I might have had some very ill-advised preconceived notions about some of my peers. To say that I could relate to Booksmart’s intentions is a vast understatement.
As I write this review, I’m a few weeks shy of my own high school graduation 25 years ago. It is through experience and wisdom that I can appreciate Booksmart’s smarts.
Don’t underestimate the power of your own being.
Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is raunchy, funny and above all else, intelligent. Don’t underestimate the power of the film to find your place in the world.
Booksmart is rated R and is now in theaters. All images courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.