‘Booksmart’ Film Review: Olivia Wilde Makes a Splashy Directorial Debut With Witty Coming-of-Age Comedy

SXSW 2019: Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein create a believable friendship in a tale of young nerdy girls out for a wild grad night

Last Updated: March 12, 2019 @ 11:21 AM

How do you begin describing the movie you have been unknowingly waiting for your entire life? Do I start by telling you how incredibly hilarious “Booksmart” is? Or do I tell you how first-time feature film director Olivia Wilde created a resoundingly smart, inclusive, modern and revolutionary film for today’s teens?

How about this: “Booksmart” is, by far, one of the most perfect coming-of-age comedies I have ever seen.

Ride-or-die best friends and academic overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are a day shy of their high school graduation. Molly belatedly discovers that while she and Amy solely focused on homework, studying, and getting a fake ID solely for the purposes of using an all-night college library throughout high school, her partying peers are somehow also heading to Ivy League schools. Determined to have one last blast of hedonism before high school ends, she convinces Amy to go out with her for a night they will never forget.

Feldstein and Dever have a natural ease with each other that creates the kind of intimacy only two best friends can share. They are both extraordinarily talented, but their comedic balance and chemistry with each other are essential to the film’s success. There is no Molly without Amy, and they both own their roles while complementing the other. There’s a core honesty in their performances, even in the wildest and raunchiest of scenes.

Every member of the ensemble is remarkable, but the stand-out is Billie Lourd. Many might still know Lourd only as the late Carrie Fisher’s daughter, despite her own success on shows like “Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story.” It’s in “Booksmart” that she truly comes into her own. As Gigi, the eccentric, ethereal girl who is just a tad too extra but has a very loving and generous heart, Lourd steals every scene she’s in, which is hard to do in a cast packed with talented actors.

The story suggests”Can’t Hardly Wait” meets “American Pie” and, yes, “Superbad,” which launched the career of Feldstein’s older brother Jonah Hill,  But where those previous films were mainly about boys coming of age, with the plot around getting the girl or losing their virginity — and, let’s face it, some pretty misogynistic attitudes towards women and sex — “Booksmart” is just as raunchy and fun while also exploring the unique closeness and depth of a female friendship. Thanks in a large part to the all-woman writing team — which includes writer-producer Katie Silberman (“Isn’t It Romantic”), Emily Halpern (“Trophy Wife”), Sarah Haskins (“Celeste and Jesse Forever”) and Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) — the script nails how two young women who have shared practically everything together talk, relate and even fight with each other.

That might not sound like a huge feat, but the movies have largely missed or misconstrued what a best friend means to a young girl. Throughout cinematic history, female friendships are largely facetious, concentrating on talking about only a handful of things — namely men, relationships and shopping (e.g., “Sex and the City”) — and when they do focus on issues facing young girls, like bullying and toxic concepts of beauty (e.g., “Mean Girls”), the defining emotional connection is left out. Wilde’s understanding of that connection and vulnerability, through her own experiences as an actress and as a woman, really shines through in her vision. There’s some uneven pacing in the middle of the film that perhaps needed a light edit, but it in no way hinders the narrative.

Teenage sexuality has also had a somewhat complicated history on the big screen. Women, particularly young women, are often subjected to the male gaze, and sex and sensuality are only viewed through a straight male lens. Now that we’re in an era with an increased awareness regarding consent versus coercion, we’re more aware of the problematic nature of some classic depictions of teenage sex lives. (For example, when dream boy Jake offers up his drunk soon-to-be-ex girlfriend to the geek to do whatever he wants to her in the John Hughes classic “Sixteen Candles.”)

But that doesn’t mean films can’t address young lust, flirtation, or seduction, and Wilde doesn’t shy away from exploring these sensitive yet very normal teenage topics. My heart leapt when I heard Molly and Amy talking about how Amy might make a move on a girl she is crushing on, and Molly addresses masturbation without any shyness, proclaiming, “You just do what you do to yourself, and flip it.” Young women in the movies rarely get to discuss masturbation, much less demonstrate it, and if they ever do, it’s in hushed or shameful tones. In “Booksmart,” these two young women are allowed to be open, funny and completely comfortable discussing it.

The fact that the characters include a variety of ethnicities, and as well as LGTBQ+ and gender non-conforming teens –simply existing as adolescents without having their identities be their main character arc — is a beautiful thing to observe. Today’s high-schoolers seem far more advanced on matters of inclusion than older generations, which is why it was so important that although everyone in the film identifies differently, those identities are merely one aspect of their character rather than the sole driving point of their existence.

“Booksmart” has transformed the coming-of-age movie for a new generation, and Wilde immediately establishes herself not as the “next” John Hughes, Cameron Crowe or Judd Apatow but the first Olivia Wilde, the director who gave quick-witted, nerdy teenage girls their chance to shine.