BOOKSMART - You Have to Live a Little
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is wickedly funny and a noted entry in the ranks of teen movies
A classic teen movie once reminded us, “You just got to keep livin’, man. L.I.V.I.N.” That is sound advice for all of us. What “Booksmart”, the directorial debut by Olivia Wilde, teaches us is that you have to START livin’ before it’s too late. That lesson is presented through the two main characters, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). Both are “perfect” students, who have concentrated on studying instead of partying like the rest of their classmates so that they can get into good schools. When Valedictorian Molly finds out everyone else got into good schools as well, she panics and convinces Amy that they must attend a pre-graduation party.
It is a simple premise that could have resulted in a simple movie had it been placed in the hands of someone who didn’t care. In the hands of Wilde, though, “Booksmart” is a clever and razor-sharp film that explores a deep friendship and how the transition out of high school and into college might impact it. Molly and Amy are joined at the hip, although Molly tends to be the bossier of the two. She is the one that drives their actions and gets the usually reluctant Amy to go along with things. This dynamic is important because it establishes the eventual source of conflict between the two friends. I won’t spoil how it bubbles to the surface, but Wilde directs the scene and rising tension quite well.
One of the funnier scenes with this dynamic involves Molly and Amy telling Amy’s parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) they are going to spend the night at Molly’s house. Amy has been out to her parents for two years, and Molly hilariously plays up the fact that Amy’s parents thinks the two are more than friends. Again… this is a scene that could have been super awkward in the hands of another director, but Wilde nails the direction. The chemistry between Feldstein and Dever is also key. Many scenes, including this one, seem to be just them two riffing, and Wilde letting the camera run.
On the surface, the film shows Molly and Amy getting into a whole slew of hijincks before they make it to the big party. Along the way, they run into their principal (Jason Sudeikis), who is moonlighting as a Lyft driver, a party thrown by the wealthy Jared (Skyler Gisondo) that seems to only consist of him and his hilariously stoned friend Gigi (Bille Lourd - who steals every scene she has and, well, might be drawing personal inspiration for her performance), and murder-mystery party being thrown by the drama students. Molly and Amy run into Gigi, who has a habit of just showing up everywhere, and realize she had drugged them at Jared’s party. The movie then takes a hilarious turn as the two hallucinate they are dolls. Wilde really goes for it in this scene, and it’s refreshing to see the end result.
“Booksmart” eventually finds Molly and Amy at the big party, and this is where everything comes to the surface. Amy tries to connect with her crush, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), while Molly seemingly connects with Nick (Mason Gooding), the boy throwing the party. There are two beautifully shot sequences at the party. One involves Molly’s fantasy of dancing with Nick, while the other involves Amy jumping in the pool to find Ryan. The cinematography of the pool sequence, where Amy symbolically sheds her outer layer to give in and feel free as everyone else is easily the high point of the film. The emotional sting of its resolution also leads to the inevitable gut-punch that’s been building from the start of the movie.
The concept of finding one’s self is really the crux of the whole film. Molly and Amy have to do this by finally having a little fun and acting like teenagers. They find out a lot about themselves and each other. Their classmates are also struggling with this. Everyone has put up an exterior to defend themselves, but, deep down inside, they are all screwed up and struggling with who they are. Jared is not really who he seems, neither is Annabelle, aka “Triple A” (Molly Gordon). She comes across as a bully towards Molly and Amy early in the film, but she has a poignant scene that explains her intentions. High school can also be super tough for those who are trying to live a little. No one really knows what to do, and Wilde really knows how to capture this struggle.
I might be analyzing this film a bit too much but, for those who don’t know, the high school and teen movie genre is one that I can talk about for hours. It is the genre that I wanted to explore when the goal was to be a screenwriter. The most immediate comparison people will have is “Superbad”, but the friendship in that film was a tad bit more toxic than the one in this film. Molly and Amy might have issues, but, deep down inside, they genuinely do care about each other and are not co-dependent.
In terms of where “Booksmart” finds itself among other teen movies, it is in the camp of the “high school resolution” film. The movie is one that takes place at the end of graduation, so it is about everyone trying to resolve their lingering issues before this particular chapter of their lives comes to a close. The prospect of a new setting is intriguing to multiple characters, including one of our main characters.
“Booksmart” is highly recommended, and you’ll find yourself laughing throughout the film. Wilde shows some really great promise as a director, and I’m intrigued as to what she does next. Feldstein and Dever also both show they can lead a movie. “Booksmart” lives more than a little. It lives a hell of a lot.