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Smart Girls Just Want to Have Fun

Kaitlyn Dever
Kaitlyn Dever
United Artists
 102 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByOlivia Wilde
Starring: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein    

If Booksmart had been made by a male director and male screenwriters and featured two best buds, like, say, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera as two high school guys determined to party it up and do certain, umm, other things on the night of their graduation, then it would have been a reasonably funny but unspectacular, raunchy teen comedy. As a matter of fact, Hill and Cera made a movie just like that in 2007 called Superbad. Instead, however, Booksmart stars Hill’s sister, Beanie Feldstein, and Kaitlyn Dever as two high school girls determined to party it up on the night of their graduation. Admittedly, there are other differences between the two movies, including one big twist that occurs in Booksmart (which the film reveals way, way too early), but the level of laughter in both films is just about the same.

Booksmart opens on the last day of high school for class president Molly (Feldstein) and her best friend Amy (Dever). They have sacrificed for four years, burning the midnight oil to get into Ivy League colleges, while staying socially conscious (Amy is headed to Botswana to work for the summer). In so doing, they have become the butt of the jokes by the more popular students and find themselves ostracized socially. The pair accept their current status because they believe the sacrifice has been worth it for their future. But, Molly’s sense of superiority over her more hedonistic classmates vanishes in a flash when she learns that they too have either been accepted into elite schools or gotten high-paying programmer jobs without having given up the fun and games along the way.

An infuriated Molly convinces Amy that they need to make up for lost time by going to the biggest graduation bash in town that night, hosted by Nick (Mason Gooding), a hunk football player on whom Molly has a crush. When Amy, who is gay, learns that a girl she fancies will be at the party as well, she agrees to go along. The only problem the pair have is that they don’t know where the bash is. As a result, the night becomes a lengthy road trip going from one graduation party to another. First, they wind up on the yacht where class rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo) is hosting a lavish party that absolutely no one from school is attending other than his perpetually stoned friend Gigi (Billy Lourd). When, somewhat predictably, that party flops, the girls wind up at a murder mystery party thrown by the head of the school drama club, George (Noah Galvin). Needless to say, that party doesn’t turn out well either.

Finally, the girls show up at Nick’s party, where they are free to pursue the objects of their affection. And, at first, it looks like both Amy and Molly will manage to find some level of happiness. As you might guess, however, things don’t quite work out as planned, and that’s even before the police quite predictably raid the party. Before that happens, Amy and Molly have a heated argument in the middle of the party that makes the two of them the center of attention.

In other words, just about everything that happens in Booksmart is a variation or a ripoff of similar things that you’ve seen in dozens of similar teen movies. Booksmart does flip the script by making the two protagonists female and one of them a lesbian. Frankly, having a lesbian main character in a mainstream teen comedy is quite unusual and refreshing. A key plot point is that Amy is physically inexperienced with other women and isn’t quite sure what to do. The nervous, fumbling virgin is a stock character in these types of films, but it’s invariably a straight teenaged boy. Here, director Olivia Wilde manages to strike a delicate balance between playing Amy’s eventual bedroom scene for laughs and making it somewhat touching as well. Of course, it goes without saying that you will never see this sort of scene, or lead character, in a comedy about two high school boys on the prowl.

Once the audience looks past the lead roles of Amy and Molly, most of the rest of the characters in Booksmart are very common types. The clueless out-of-touch rich guy, the literal drama queens, the dumb jock on the make, and the popular sexpot have all been seen too many times. To their credit, Wilde and the screenwriting team manage to keep these characters interesting longer than usual for this type of movie, but eventually, the same jokes in the same situations wear a bit thin. One character who does not wear thin is Gigi, who is the sort of wild free spirit who pretty much transcends rules and descriptions. This is a breakout role for Billie Lourd, who is hilarious nearly every time she appears in what seems to be a largely improvised performance. (It should also get her out from the understandably large shadow of her mother, Carrie Fisher.)

The screenwriters of Booksmart also make one major miscalculation that robs the film of a lot of its potential impact. The big twist, as I mentioned earlier, occurs in the first act, when Amy and Molly discover that all their sacrifices have been in vain because their classmates will be on the same college/career track that they are on. This revelation would have been far more effective had it come later in the movie. Instead, the film ends with the upbeat but somewhat artificial (considering the context) notion that people aren’t always what they seem, and that high school kids shouldn’t just prejudge and make fun of each other based on stereotypical expectations. Of course, this message might have been more credible if the script hadn’t been making jokes at the expense of those characters for the previous 90 minutes.

Ultimately, Booksmart never manages to break free of its genre despite a few good touches and innovations here and there. But, if it’s a genre movie, it’s a pretty funny one. The cast is quite entertaining, especially the actors like Lourd, Gisondo, and Galvin who have the most outrageous roles. The ratio of hits to misses as far as the jokes are concerned is pretty close to one to one for most of the movie. That was enough to keep me amused, and, I suspect, most filmgoers will enjoy it as well. And, every so often. The filmmakers bring in a joke from left field that seems to work perfectly, such as a bit late in the movie about the pizza delivery man. Poor marketing has pretty much doomed Booksmart at the box office, but this is precisely the type of movie that fares well in later years in the home market. As the film demonstrates, girls just want to have fun and can be as funny going about it as guys are.

In this clip, Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein prepare for their last day of school.

Read other reviews of Booksmart: 

Booksmart (2019) on IMDb