The best high-school movies really love the kids in them. That’s the case with Booksmart, a teen comedy that revels in its cliches with uncommon tenderness. As the hapless students flounder about, putting all their foibles on display, Booksmart always maintains a kind and understanding gaze. It’s a movie that wants to be there for its subjects.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, high-achieving seniors and best friends who wonder if they should have done less studying and had more fun in school. And so the night before graduation, they decide to hit the biggest party of the year. Nerds gone wild? If this sounds a lot like Superbad—which starred Feldstein’s brother, Jonah Hill—be assured that nothing about Booksmart feels stale. Instead, the movie has the sense of fresh voices getting an opportunity to explore familiar territory.
Feldstein and Dever are two of those voices, and they’re a delight together. Both have had smaller parts in other high-school comedies (Feldstein in Lady Bird and Dever in The Spectacular Now). They shine in the spotlight here. Molly has a confidence and quick wit; Amy defends against the inanities of high-school life with a dry sense of humor. Despite the oasis they’ve carved out for themselves, they both recognize that they’re not at the top of the social pyramid. And so the foundation of their friendship is an indefatigable insistence on mutual encouragement. Some of the best bits in the movie are the over-the-top compliment sessions they engage in, which play like improvised, live-action versions of “yaasss queen” Instagram comments.
That’s sort of how the whole movie feels. Even as Booksmart acknowledges the social hierarchies at play, it doesn’t dismiss or demonize any of its characters. There are stereotypes—dumb jocks, drama queens—but they’re each viewed with such genuine affection that the performances feel at once over-the-top and personal. Jared (Skyler Gisondo), the awkwardly ingratiating rich kid always trying to buy friends; Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), the goofy, mop-topped skater girl with whom Amy is smitten; George (Noah Galvin), the uptight drama club co-president who bares his soul during a karaoke version of “You Oughta Know”—I’d happily watch a movie charting the high-school experiences of any of them. Booksmart becomes less about which of these kids “did it right”—the studiers, the partiers, the in-betweens—and more about the common experience that all high-schoolers have, trying to establish a sense of self when everything about yourself (and those around you) seems to be in flux.
Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, and her camera has a startling intimacy, often employing tight close-ups that bring us right next to these kids’ heightened emotions. And for all the familiar beats the film hits, Wilde also throws us some formal curveballs. There is a stop-motion sequence in which Molly and Amy imagine themselves as crudely proportioned Barbie dolls; a giddy dance number between Molly and the class himbo (Mason Gooding) on whom she has an unacknowledged crush; and a lovely underwater sequence in which Amy sheds the inhibitions she’s carried for the last four years.
There’s another nice formal touch over the end credits, one that perfectly encapsulates the movie’s sensibility. In a callback to an earlier gag where Molly is hit with a water balloon, each of the main characters appears in close-up as a balloon explodes on their face in slow motion. In Wilde’s hands, it comes across not as a prank or gotcha moment, but a kind and loving gesture.