‘Booksmart’ review: Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age comedy delivers a touching message of acceptance

by Charlotte Siohan, Staff Writer

On first look, Booksmart seems to be just another teenage comedy glorifying the high school party scene and indulging in mature and often lewd humor. However, director Olivia Wilde masterfully develops heart-warming themes of friendship and acceptance in this fast-paced, deeply relatable film, while painting a more accurate picture of the trials and tribulations of the high school experience in 2019.

In Wilde’s directorial debut, two academically-driven high school girls prepare to graduate having missed out on the fun of their teenage years by thinking it would put them ahead of their peers. However, after realizing their classmates have successfully balanced work and play, the friends set out to experience four years of fun in one night before graduation the next morning. As they embark on an adventure filled with wild moments, the girls quickly realize none of their studying has prepared them for this chaos.

The film stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as the overachieving best friends, and both actresses portray their respective characters excellently, while also managing to realistically create the special bond between the friends. Feldstein plays Molly Davidson, a misguided and strong willed girl who is clearly controlling as she pressures her friend to spend the night partying with her. Dever plays Amy Antsler, who is quietly crushing on another girl, and struggles to share her feelings and stay true to her decisions because of her loyalty to Molly, who seemingly controls every aspect of her life. 

There are three different party scenes which take place in the same night. Although they are ultimately trying to get to their classmate Nick’s party, their wealthy classmate Jared deceivingly directs them to his own yacht party, where Jared tries to win them over through luxury, but they are eager to leave since there is only one other classmate there. While the entire sequence is laughable and sets the wild tone for the remainder of the film, it also delivers a hard-hitting message when Molly tells Jared that he shouldn’t try to buy affection. He is one of the first characters in the movie who prove to be different from who they seem, as Jared appeared to be an obnoxious rich kid with everything handed to him, when in fact he is desperate for true friends and feels the need to impress people to get their attention. 

The next party scene is entertaining and enjoyable, but the third and final party scene has the most pivotal moments of the entire film. The girls separate and spend time with their crushes, but when Amy later finds their crushes kissing each other in the pool, she asks Molly to leave with her. Molly refuses, and this leads to an intense argument between the friends. All of the humor throughout the movie is offset by their emotional fight. The scene shows that Molly has not been a good friend to Amy, and pushes the idea that while the girls felt as if they weren’t accepted by their classmates, they had not truly accepted each other either. The argument is written and performed extremely well, making it a realistic depiction of two friends finally releasing their pent-up anger and frustration towards each other.

The rest of the film seems like a blur from that moment on. The girls struggle to make it to their graduation the next morning, having made up from their fight and finally supporting and truly accepting each other. The graduation was one of the lower points of the film, as it followed the structure of typical speeches at movie graduations or prom nights: Molly gives her valedictorian speech that aimed to deliver the main message of the movie, where she finally understands how she is similar to her classmates and no better than them in the end. The scene was unpleasantly sweet and sadly quite cliché, but was perhaps saved by the incredulous reactions of the classmates in the audience. The movie had created a pattern where most of the plans did not go accordingly, so the morning after where everything seems perfect was perhaps satisfying to some viewers, but offbeat in a sense.

Considering the action-packed, dramatic majority of the film as the girls started their night, the conclusion leaves much to be desired as it is not in any sense thought-provoking or up to speed with the tone of the rest of the movie. Either the writers fell flat when crafting an ending to suit the chaotic plot, or they meant to bring the movie full circle and show that Molly and Amy could continue on with their past lives after the enlightening experiences of that fateful night which did change their perspectives.

Booksmart is noticeably centered around Molly and Amy and their friendship, but arguably some of the most memorable scenes are credited to the supporting cast and their characters. Particularly, the loony classmate Gigi who laces strawberries with a hallucinogenic drug and feeds them to the girls, sending them on a bizarre trip where they see themselves as plastic dolls and judge their figures. It is indeed as ridiculous as it sounds, and while it may not add to the plot in a meaningful way, its presence would be greatly missed if not in the film.

Jason Sudeikis as the principal who works as a Lyft driver by night is notable as well. When the girls call a driver to take them from one of the parties to the next, it is hilariously shocking when they discover he is in the driver seat. The situation is awkwardly amusing, especially as he randomly pitches a novel he’s been writing about a pregnant female detective whose baby kicks whenever she finds a clue. It is both entertaining and visually eye catching– the principal has string lights hanging throughout the car, which direct viewer attention as they drive in the dark.

Feldstein’s performance is wildly convincing and stands out from the supporting cast. It may not be the first great performance of her acting career, but it makes clear that Feldstein plays bossy very well. While many of her greatest moments in the film were humorous and light-hearted, what was most impressive was her ability to suddenly become vulnerable. Especially as the film is concluding, and the girls are coming down from their adrenaline high, Feldstein pulls off making a character who appeared to be one note and genuinely annoying become dynamic and likable.

It is undeniable that Molly outshines Amy throughout the film, but this is likely due to Dever staying true to her character. As the night progresses, it seems like Amy is simply a pawn in Molly’s game, but even so, it is impossible not to root for her, making Amy take the lead in the movie. The moment where Amy finally stands up for herself and admits to Molly that she is taking a gap year despite what Molly thinks is best is somehow extremely satisfying while also being difficult to watch, as the tension between the friends finally boils over for the first time right in the middle of the graduation party. This scene is a strong point in both actresses’ performances, and leads to some of the greatest scenes in the entire movie, which distinguish Booksmart from the average teen comedy.

For first-time director Wilde, the shots for the most part were not generally impressive or fit to amaze, but in fact there were some camera moments which were visually appealing. The hazy orange and pink lighting as Amy and a partygoer sing Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” is of note, as well as the shot of Amy underwater in the pool with her eyes open. The choices in lighting were intentional, even if they weren’t always noticeable as such.

In a grand aspect, this film speaks on stereotypes by building characters that appear one-dimensional, and then breaking down these stereotypes by revealing more about characters in a way that shocks every time. And even though the explicit humor seemed to be a bit excessive at points, it somehow complemented the naivety and innocence of Molly and Amy who were having intense reactions to their new experiences. There is clearly something so on point with the way in which the ridiculous plot points manage to create deep and touching messages and situations. 

The brilliant cast of Booksmart deserves immense recognition for their performances. Simply the reactions of characters in the background were well done and the graduating class in the movie are one of the few examples in film of older actors convincingly playing high school students. Even if the plot had lacked some of the depth and meaning of the messages, the laugh-out-loud scenarios would be enough to still make Booksmart an absolute pleasure to watch. But because of the morals deeply embedded in the story, this film not only pleases viewers, but also leaves audiences questioning whether they have truly experienced life to its full potential.