This one’s a joy. Not so far removed from Lady Bird and Superbad but a little American Pie. Oddly reminiscent of Luca Guadagnino’s work too. Whichever way, Booksmart sets out a tremendously self-assured debut for actor turned director Olivia Wilde. Naturally, much about the project’s influences promised an indie affair – in the vogue of Greta Gerwig’s own debut – but such was in contrast to the billing of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers. In execution, Booksmart is gloriously equidistant to either pole. It is an eloquently brash and bitingly silly coming of age comedy at home on the fine divide between nostalgic and contemporary atmospheres.
Recall to Lady Bird occurs first with the front and centre role of that film’s breakout performer Beanie Feldstein. Here, the instantly likeable young star – sister of Jonah Hill – plays yet another valedictorian on the brink of a bright academic future: Molly. On hearing her slacker frat classmates mock her alleged frigidity, Molly’s rebuff that at least she has a great future ahead falters with the crushing revelation that they too have aced school: ’I’m incredible at hand jobs, but I also got a fifteen-sixty on the SATs.’ Even dim-witted Tanner (Nico Hiraga) has himself a Good internship on the horizon. Could it be that Molly – and best friend Amy (a superb – watch this space – Kaitlyn Dever) have got their adolescence wrong? ‘Nobody knows that we are fun!’ Molly wails, as another film’s fist pump moment is undermined.
With graduation a pithy twenty-four hours away, Molly and Amy pact to rewrite their four years on the grindstone with a wild night of readymade anecdotes. The chosen locale of this last chance saloon of debauchery is that all-American tradition of the red-cup house party. Everyone will be there. In a neat touch, writers Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman vignette peripheral characters with a freewheeling, almost sketch-comic quality. All feel rounded and each defies stereotypical expectation beautifully. If the general direction here is predictable, the route is dazzlingly detoured. Candid discussion of sexual history and preferences, meanwhile, proves refreshing as much for its naturalism as its circumstantial regard.
Perhaps the world was hardly crying out for another coming of age classic for the white and privileged – college fees are no qualm for these gals – and yet that’s essentially what this is. A classic. It’s hard to complain though, and wrong to burden Wilde with flack, when Booksmart is so consistently darn good. From start – an uncredited vocal cameo by Maya Rudolf – to close, this is a riotously funny film and a frequently relatable one to boot. Quite something given the film’s inclination to flights of fantasy and a plot progress that leans on wish fulfilment. Whilst it feels unlikely that all in the school would be secretly kind, Star Wars’ bit-parter Billie Lourd is a hoot as nutty heiress Gigi and there’s a lovely turn by Skyler Gisondo as misunderstood try-hard Jarred.
Balancing out Booksmart’s more absurd touches – a brief yacht soiree and inspired barbie doll episode among them – is a winning focus on empathy and good-hearted will to do right by the characters. Wilde’s pacing is lovely and camerawork deceptively intelligent. In one instant, an argument captured via a close-focus side to side pan, with smartphone lights flickering behind, enables a mesmerising intensity. Another sees a swimming pool dive echo the cover of Nirvana’s iconic 1991 Nevermind album cover. Wilde’s visual enthusiasm is, in this sense, infectiously engaging and does much to boost a great film with artistic merit. The modern-day setting of Booksmart matters but comes with a timeless quality. Certainly, we can expect the film to be revered in the teen comedy ranks of Clueless and Mean Girls for decades to come.