Olivia Wilde didn’t have to go this hard – but she did. For her directorial debut, “Booksmart,” the actress-turned-director comes out swinging with not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of the best high school movies of all time. With a stacked supporting cast, a script crackling with densely packed jokes and a bravura, awards-worthy comedic performance from star Beanie Feldstein, “Booksmart” more than earns its high marks and hype.
Wilde’s screen style is joyful, colorful and rhythmic – it’s simply exuberant. With Jason McCormick’s cinematography and a thumping soundtrack by Dan the Automator, “Booksmart” creates an intoxicating energy that brings to life the script by a crack team of female writers: Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman.
The story is a familiar tale, told with a contemporary perspective and aching specificity. A pair of less-than-popular teenage pals decide they want to enjoy one night of high school hedonism before graduation. Think “Can’t Hardly Wait” or “Superbad.” But this time, the girls are the subjects, not the objects.
Ruthlessly ambitious class President Molly (Beanie Feldstein) suffers an existential crisis on the last day of school when she realizes the classmates she considered burnouts have been accepted to elite colleges, just as she has. Determined to not be the loser who chose only studying and school, she ropes her quieter, fiercely feminist, queer best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), into changing their high school narratives by going to the last big party. They just have to find it first.
Just getting to the party is a wild journey involving matching jumpsuits, a mega-yacht, their Lyft-driving principal, a murder mystery dinner, a brief detour for archival research, an encounter with a suspected murderer, and an accidental drug trip. Molly, on the hunt for a “seminal fun anecdote,” an ever the overachiever, earns a whole high school diploma’s worth in a single night.
“Booksmart” is deeply indebted to “Clueless,” another high school classic from a female auteur, Amy Heckerling. Molly has shades of Cher Horowitz, and “Booksmart” absolutely nails what “Clueless” did so well with a deep bench of quirky, richly written side characters that round out the high school ecosystem. Noah Galvin as a savage theater kid and Billie Lourd as a wacky rich girl are standouts, but Skyler Gisondo as indefatigable dork Jared gives the surprise breakout performance.