Movie review: Booksmart

(image courtesy IMP awards)

In the high school system, things divide, more or less fairly neatly, between the cool kids, the not-cool kids, and the ambivelnt Switzerland-like group in the middle who somehow manage, by some act of teenage alchemy, to be all things to all people.

Of course, high school being the monstrously-complicated creature that it is, things rarely demarcate quite so evenly, especially in an environment which resembles a cross between Mad Max, World Wide Wrestling, online trolling and a gathering of ill-tempered, snarky mafioso.

Still, it’s a reasonably good guide to the world in which Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde to a screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, exists, a world which it soon becomes apparent to over-achieving best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is nothing like they’d imagined it to be.

On their last day of school ever, a fact celebrated by long-suffering Principal Jordan (Jason Sudeikis), Molly discovers, in the middle of a rant putting down three of her classmates (who she’s overheard dissing her single-minded pursuit of good grades and stellar civic involvement – she’s the class president) that they have made it into colleges every bit as good as the one she’s attending, despite the fact they partied and slacked off as much as they studied, if not more.

As shocks to the system go, this is pretty monumental since Molly’s entire world, and by extension that of Amy, who tends to follow meekly in her friend’s formidable wake, pivots entirely on the idea that working hard, planning to within an inch of your life, and eschewing socialising (parties and sex essentially) is the only way to success in life.

Turns out it may not be, with “Triple A” aka Annabelle (Molly Gordon) archly telling a deer-in-headlights Molly in the middle of the bathroom confrontation, that they actually studied too; it’s just that it wasn’t all they did.

With that, she exits the bathroom, leaving a stunned Molly wondering how she could have got it so wrong.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Sure, she got the great grades and entry to Yale, but what’s she missed out on to get them?

Lots, as it turns out, and in a spontaneous attempt to seize back her forfeited, debauched teenagerhood, she decides that she and Amy will go to the biggest party in town, being held by handsome slacker and Molly’s class VP, Nick (Mason Gooding), TONIGHT and make up for all that ill-judged academic strategising.

It’s a lot to ask of one night, and Amy, who simply wants to see if she can attract the romantic attention of adroginous skater classmate Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), knows it; Molly, though, is a force to be reckoned with and so she turns the same singleminded dedication that she directed to studying hard to partying hard and proving she’s had as full-rounded a life as everyone.

You know, of course, that it’s all going to go south and it does, with consistently hilarious, and heartfelt, results.

It’s those two elements that make Booksmart such a consistently rewarding joy to watch.

Firstly, it is ridiculous, brilliantly, cleverly funny, the screenplay fairly popping with sharp character-based humour that never resorts to cheap lowest common denominator laughs, preferring instead to riff off observational insights that point to the absurdity of school life generally but also of the adults caught in its orbit.

The end result is that none of the humour is remotely cheap or easy, nor is it cruel or nasty; this is comedy based on the reality of the sheer insanity of being alive, which in this case finds its expression in the lives of two high school students and their newly-discovered classmates, many of whom such as Annabelle, Gigi (Billie Lourd in fine adorably loopy form) and Jared (Skyler Gisondo), have far more depth to them than Molly particularly ever gave them credit for.

The impact of much of the humour, with bright, sparkling, fresh and laugh out funny with oneliners flying around like sassy arrows, is amplified considerably by the sheer brilliance of Feltstein and Dever’s delivery which is pitch-perfect, on point and drawn from near-flawless chemistry, the kind that makes it very easy to believe these two young women are very close friends.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Deftly balancing this humour, which is gloriously and satisfyingly unending, is the innate, finely-judged humanity of the piece.

Booksmart benefits from having its sager, more emotionally-evocative moments tied tightly into the very fabric of its comedy-driven storytelling; rather than having its heartfelt scenes feeling like tacked-on falsehoods that fail to reflect how much of a transformative point in their lives Molly and Amy are at, they feel deeply-connected and movingly resonant.

This is crucial because while Booksmart is funny, like all good comedies it needs a beating heart inside it or it runs the real risk of feeling hollow, shallow and short-lived and lack any hope of the longevity that this film, which possesses a heart as big as Molly’s highly-structured and overly-planned dreams, will inevitably have.

So effective is it in marrying manic, witty and decidedly quirky comedy – the scene where both girls are high for the first time is incredibly inventive, giving some real emotional weight and social insight to some genuinely bust-a-gut humour – with its more reflective moments that even the graduation ceremony, which garrulously mixes the two feel like a very human, pleasing piece of storytelling.

They may be joking about it but Molly and Amy’s lives, like all people at key points of change in their life, are about to change and change substantially and while it’s hilarious watching them trying to add some last-minute spice and variety to their largely monotone high school experience as they race from party to party, what really gets you in the end is how much their friendship matters to both of them, how its geographic separation is going to fundamentally alter it, and how, understandably neither of them wants to face that truth or admit its existence to each other.

At no point does the poignant and sensitive and damn funny – we did mention how fantastically funny this is, right? – screenplay put a single foot wrong, displaying as much of a knack for hilarity as it does affecting emotional insight, making Booksmart one of those very rare films that entertains like crazy while driving home so many relatable insights that you are left nodding in knowing recognition every bit as much as you are laughing out loud.

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