SXSW Review: The Heartfelt Comedy of ‘Booksmart’ Manifests an Instant Classic
Easily the strongest feature to come out SXSW is Olivia Wilde’s comedic directorial debut Booksmart. Kaitlyn Dever (Beautiful Boy, Short Term 12) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) star as Amy and Molly, two brilliant high schoolers on the cusp of graduation, dutifully prepared to chase their grand dreams of leadership and social change in college. All their focus and energy on school has earned them admissions to Ivy League Schools, but it isn’t until the eleventh hour they realize there may have been more to their teenage years than a grade point average. In a last ditch effort to redeem themselves, they plan to attend a wild high school party on their last night before donning their caps and gowns.
Olivia Wilde’s team of all female writers, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, devote the entire film to flaunting their razor-sharp script. Their intelligent and purposeful comedy never strays from the story at hand to get to a punchline. The film breezes from one hilarious scenario to the next as each hitch in the girl’s plan forces them to reroute, but managing to never stall out or disrupt the narrative. Molly and Amy bring a refreshing flavor of feminism to a storyline reminiscent of Superbad. Jokes about Ken Burns documentaries and Ruth Bader Ginsberg demonstrates how specific Wilde is able to be with their personalities, while also evoking laughs. Their friendship is the comedic and emotional centerpiece of the film, and their adoration for each other is sincere. Thanks to Wilde’s commitment to a unique female-centered narrative, Booksmart is well rounded with both a dazzling sense of humor and emotional depths.
The film is as contemporary as it gets, taking as succinct a snapshot of modern youth as last year’s Eighth Grade. It effortlessly captures the culture of social media and taps into the climate of feminism that is permeating this younger generation. Amy and Molly are politically involved, practitioners of radical self-love, and outspokenly ambitious, embodying a new generation of activists dissatisfied with their environment and brimming with optimism. But as they are also teens, the film stays true to the inherent melodrama that comes with high school crushes and gossip. Their awkward romances and clumsy confrontations is as honest as it is compelling. Booksmart explores the surreality of being 18 years old and standing on a precipice. It’s looking out over a wide unknown world ahead of you while looking back at the path you’ve taken and asking, who are you trying to be? Will end up where you want? Have you done everything you could?
On a personal level, Amy and Molly are exceptionally relatable. As the same kind of honor student who obsessed over grades and was more eager to chat with teachers than other students, they felt all too familiar. Their vast academic career and motto of “take no prisoners” is where they draw their confidence, but it’s also a shield from their colleagues. Their dependence on each other stems from their own personal isolation and social difference from their fellow students. They believe they are somehow a different, perhaps superior, species separated from the theater kids, jocks or the skaters. Having been rarely invited along to any extracurricular events and never partaking, it was an emotional experience to live vicariously through their wild night of exploring the social strata. While Molly and Amy know that their peers are strangers to them, there’s still a great deal they have to learn about their own relationship. The two best friends are unprepared for the realization that they aren’t growing in the same direction anymore, and while on their quest for the ultimate party, the fear that they may not factor into each other’s aspirations as much they thought rises. With graduation around the corner, their devotion is suddenly strained, and time and again, Wilde handles this tension with a sincerely human compassion. Though these themes remain playful and light, it’s the authenticity that pushes it beyond an ordinary R-rated coming of age film.
Booksmart also establishes Amy’s storyline as openly queer in a manner that feels natural and fully developed. As most are, her first attempts at romance are awkward as she works up the courage to speak to the girl she pines for. She’s never singled out for her sexuality. In fact, the film holds an abundance of canonically queer characters that feel full of life, and her romantic experiences are treated with the same consideration as Molly’s. This isn’t the first major film to feature a young lesbian prominently, but it’s still a huge deal for a queer teen to pursue a crush without being outed against their will or rejected by their own friends. I’m looking right at you, Love, Simon.
On top of everything else, the supporting cast is stacked with fantastic roles. Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte are Amy’s loving, out of touch parents who are confused by modern teens but still supportive of her close friendship with Molly. Skyler Gisondo is hilarious as Jared, a thoughtful but overenthusiastic classmate who learns from our protagonists that money can’t buy genuine friendship. Jason Sudeikis has a bit part as a principal by day, Uber driver by night who becomes reluctantly embroiled with the girls’ scheme. And then, there is Billie Lourd. Compared to the rest, she’s on a whole other level as Gigi, an utter enigma of a party girl. Lourd’s deep dive into this befuddling persona is so rewarding and memorable that each instance she pops up triggers an instant dose of dopamine to the brain. As small as some of these comic characters are, the real genius is how they fold into and enrich the larger narrative.
Booksmart operates as a coming of age story, which seems to be a running theme the past couple years with young directors on the rise. While on the heels of the excellence of Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, Booksmart’s wholehearted brilliance stands up there with the rest of them. Olivia Wilde’s fresh directorial influence comes with a willingness to break conventional rules and take risks that others more entrenched may not. Her style is clearly full of enthusiasm and love for the craft, and her perspective as an actor works as a catalyst for some inspired performances. The entire film is an embarrassment of riches with endless re-watch value. It will without doubt secure a place in audiences’ hearts as an instant classic. Much like Molly and Amy, Booksmart has earned its A+.