BOOKSMART – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird), Noah Galvin (Assassination Nation), Billie Lourd (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Skyler Gisondo (Vacation), Jessica Williams (The Incredible Jessica James), Lisa Kudrow (Easy A), Will Forte (MacGruber), Jason Sudeikis (Horrible Bosses)

Director: Olivia Wilde

Writers: Emily Halpern & Sarah Haskins (Trophy Wife) and Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) and Katie Silberman (Set It Up)

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 24th May (US), 27th May (UK)

Coming-of-age stories are a great topic for filmmakers making their debut to explore, as reflecting on their view of adolescence is a great way for both them to find their perspective on the world and for audiences to gain an understanding of their cinematic voice moving forward. Actress Olivia Wilde now follows the path of many directors before her with Booksmart, and if this film is any indication of what she has to bring to the landscape, her voice is one that deserves more opportunities to be heard.

Though Booksmart may on the surface just seem like a gender-flipped retread of Superbad (I mean, Beanie Feldstein is for real Jonah Hill’s sister, so that’s extra ironic) and hits on similar themes of conflicted friendship and the hesitance to embrace the unknown future, but that’s a point that could be made about nearly every “last night before the end of high school” movie ever. What films of the genre really need to become defining is feel like an honest portrayal of the era they are set in and bring a unique perspective to these universal themes. Luckily, Booksmart accomplishes both of those tasks. Though somewhat exaggerated for comedic purposes, the film does feel like an sincere depiction of the teenage experience in 2019 and, though sometimes a tad laborious in reminding us, the progressive sex-positive feminist viewpoint of our protagonists is one historically unexplored by a genre overloaded with anxiety-ridden teenage boy outcasts wanting to get laid.

Films like this ride or die on the characterisation and chemistry of their main characters, and both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein make for a memorable duo as Amy and Molly. They come across like authentic long-time friends right from their first interaction, and their respective anxieties in this transitional stage of life feel genuine and relatable. Though they work off each other fantastically on a comedic level, it’s the dramatic moments between the two that really crackle. A particularly gut-punching exchange between the two of them late in the second act not only serves a showcase for the two actors, but for the script’s whipsmart dialogue and makes for an instantly iconic moment of directing from Wilde.

The film would function well enough with just their performances, but Booksmart’s supporting cast is chockfull of memorable supporting characters. From Skyler Gisondo’s cringe-inducing turn as culturally appropriative try-hard rich kid Jared, to Jessica Williams as one of the coolest cool teachers in film history Miss Fine, right down to the smallest of parts like Eduardo Franco’s goofy mature student Theo, there hasn’t been a coming-of-age ensemble quite as diverse and uniquely memorable since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There are so many to choose from, but my personal MVP is absolutely Billie Lourd as the manic and unpredictable force that is Gigi, and from this performance alone she deserves to become a bigger star.

The only characters I found somewhat problematic were Noah Galvin and Austin Crute as a pair of ridiculously flamboyant theatre majors, which is a real shame considering how honest and maturely it handles the sexuality of Dever’s character. It really does feel incongruous to have this realistic and respectful depiction of a lesbian teen that avoids all of the stereotypes, whilst on the other side of the room there are these two swishy stereotypes that even most contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race would call “a bit much”.

Booksmart is an unapologetically bawdy but smart and touching reflection of what female adolescence means today; it’s like if Lady Bird was written by Sarah Silverman. There’s no guarantee that it’ll become a timeless classic like many other films of its ilk, but it certainly deserves to reach the audience it’s clearly aimed at. Female audiences deserve their own sex comedies too and, along with Greta Gerwig’s aforementioned film and last year’s underrated Blockers, it looks like we’re finally getting the progressive coming-of-age films we need right now. Beyond the film itself, Wilde’s ability to direct actors and balance comedy with drama is absolutely evident right here in this debut, and I anxiously await what she does with her talents in the future.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

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Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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