Booksmart: Crafty Coming-of-Age Tale Updated and Buoyed by Female Spin

By Kim Hughes

Rating: A

A Dazed and Confused for the 21st century but with a decidedly female tilt, Booksmart — actor Olivia Wilde’s sparkling directorial debut — raises the bar for coming-of-age stories with playbook-changing inventiveness and ecstatic humour.

Book Smart_resize.jpg

We meet Amy and Molly (Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein) on the last day of high school in California. From the start it’s apparent these two are more than just BFFs. They’re cerebral soul mates, partners in academia and bad dancing, and witty beyond anything you ever mustered in your teen years. Get used to the jaunty comebacks; you’ll be hearing a lot of them.

Loathed by their classmates for their smugness, Amy and Molly take refuge in each other and their presumed intellectual superiority. All that changes when Molly overhears some nasty truths about herself while using the gender-neutral washroom at school (one of the film’s many self-consciously hipster nods, which include, but are not limited to, ghost peppers, Lyfts steered by the gig economy, and casual porn).

The ensuing washroom throw-down flicks the proverbial switch: Molly and Amy, who have devoted themselves to study at the expense of the usual high school shenanigans, are no further ahead of their classmates, who have also been accepted at Ivy League schools despite enjoying life outside the library. In fact, Molly and Amy lag behind them on the real-life continuum.

Fueled by a sudden desire to let loose, the friends vow to par-tay all night long on the eve of graduation. Their attempts to locate and then attend a bash thrown by the school’s most popular kid puts the pair in motion, and we follow their kaleidoscopic nightlong adventure: crash-landing at other graduation parties, getting stoned, getting straight, chasing crushes, making out, revealing painful secrets and finally, landing precisely where they were supposed to be all along, albeit with attitudes adjusted.

Booksmart’s most persuasive charm is its unabashed exuberance, plus several choice scenes (especially a hallucinatory, CGI-goosed one in a child’s bedroom) that soar. The film also commendably upends convention; to wit, its compulsory, awkward teenage love scene features a same-sex couple. Hello 2019.

The high school rite-of-passage film canon may have been raided here but its thieves — screenwriters Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, doubtless abetted by producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay — have wrung every drop of weird, contradictory, and squeamish fun out of the teenage experience. And given it a female lens. You don’t write those words every day.

Booksmart. Directed by Olivia Wilde. Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Forte. Opens wide May 24.