At SXSW in March, debutante-director Olivia Wilde addressed the Austin crowd, announcing how she wanted to make Booksmart the next Breakfast Club or Clueless. Something tells me, three decades from now, a budding filmmaker will say she wants to make her film the next Booksmart.
Booksmart follows two best friends, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) who, on the brink of graduation, realize that they haven’t lived life to the fullest, as they’ve put aside the typical high school needs like partying or dating to buckle down and concentrate on academics. This of course, leads to one last shenanigan filled night to make up for the last four years.
The genre is nothing new; it is in many ways a familiar story, complete with story beats that border on cinematic trope. The only difference at first glance, is that these girls aren’t your typical slackers, and that it’s not just about ‘getting laid’ before they go to college. Your mind can’t help but go to recent classics like Superbad (which becomes ironic considering that film starred Feldstein’s older brother, Jonah Hill) but it is the manner in which Wilde portrays this latest high school coming-of-age comedy that makes it something special.
While the film can play it safe in terms of major story beats (friends become enemies, enemies become friends, they all learn, grow, fall in love, fall out of love, etc, etc) you could say it takes chances, but only when compared to those original 80’s era teen classics. What I admired most about Booksmart was its representation of the insanely diverse high school world. As a high school educator for more than a decade now, I’ve seen what students have to offer, and it does surprise you… constantly. That’s one of the best parts of the job. Booksmart taps into this generation’s collective identity by really nailing the point home; that this generation doesn’t have a collective identity. The cast is culturally diverse. It shows characters of different sexual orientations. The balance of almost every character is amazing; The ‘bitch’ can be understanding, the ‘moron’ can go to an Ivy league school. Booksmart shows you what you’ve seen in other teenaged films, that you never know who these kids are, but in a 21st century way. This is why this film is destined to be a classic for the Millennials as much as Breakfast club was for Gen Xers.
While Wilde may be a rookie behind the camera, her experience as a veteran actor certainly pays off. She cultivated tremendous layered performances out of her young cast. There was the odd miss, of course; I felt a few characters bordered on stereotypes, but that was more of an issue of the writing, than her direction. I also felt the adults in this movie were used for the cheap laughs, The Principal (played by Wilde’s husband and former SNL funny man Jason Sudeikis) being a rideshare driver is an easy laugh, but also frighteningly accurate for most public educators. Even Lisa Kudrow & Will Forte as Amy’s parents were more caricatures than character (but I have to admit, I wouldn’t mind if Forte played a Dad in every movie he’s going to do for the rest of his career). Ultimately, you won’t notice most of these over-the-top characters because of the real connections built between several other characters that truly make the film.
The typical side adventures that are always a part of this genre also go a little over-the-top, (a drug-fueled stop-motion nightmare is one of the more memorable vignettes), almost as if it’s several smaller films within the overall story, but that becomes part of the films’ originality and charm. Wilde as well, attempts many different styles of direction when each of these vignettes occur. Some work, some do not, but it was refreshing to see a new director attempt to do new things with an established genre. There’s so much that Wilde clearly wants to do artistically, that I can’t wait for her next film. There are sequences that show a deft directorial eye, and visually, are beautiful to watch. I hope she can continue to hone her art and matures as a filmmaker.
Dever & Feldstein create a true friendship, and as we all know, that’s the crux of this genre. If we don’t buy into this relationship, then literally nothing else matters in the story. We wouldn’t invest ourselves in the story, we wouldn’t cheer for them, or we wouldn’t feel the consequences matter. I can’t say with all certainty that this film will speak to everyone, but I can guarantee that it will speak to today’s generation, and that’s massive.
That’s the sign of a classic, waiting to happen.