I find Annapurna to be such a fascinating distributor and producer. They’re single-handedly responsible for some of the most interesting films of the decade (produced The Master, Her, Phantom Thread, and If Beale Street Could Talk, among others) and some of the weirdest (distributed endlessly odd Sorry to Bother You, which is quickly becoming a personal favorite). Similarly to A24, when their logo appears before a trailer, you should file the name of the film away in your brain for future film consumption. That logic follows through with Booksmart, which is one of the best true comedies of the last few years.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Olivia Wilde
Written By: Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Billie Lourd, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Victoria Ruesga, Eduardo Franco, Noah Galvin, Austin Crute, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Forte
Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) are two classic overachievers. Instead of going out in high school, they went to the library, doing everything possible to get into good schools and start their adult lives correctly. And it worked. Tremendously.
But as it turns out, all the other students that they loathed — the jocks, the burn-outs, the popular girls, etc. — got into those same schools…and also went out and enjoyed themselves.
Distraught, Molly forces Amy to go out to party the night before graduation and finally let off some steam like they never did before.
2019 is a New Chapter for Olivia Wilde and Her Career
I’ve always thought of Olivia Wilde as a talented individual. Even though she’s starred in too many fatally dreadful movies — remember The Change-Up? — she’s never been the problem, always showcasing quick wit and that coveted it factor. She always had a screen presence, but she might not have quite known how to use it.
Whatever doubts I had about her quickly dissipated upon watching A Vigilante, a revenge thriller starring Wilde as a domestic abuse survivor who looks out for other women dealing with their own bouts of abuse. The 2019 film isn’t exactly a rollicking, shoot-em-up thrill-ride, rather, it looks at the after-effects of such harm. Wilde offers a pretty awesome performance in the lead role, one that recontextualizes her on-screen skills.
And almost two months later, here comes Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s feature film debut. Soon enough, we might all look at Wilde a little differently.
Booksmart‘s Diverse and Hilarious Cast Differentiates It from the Rest
There’s a lot new or possibly unfamiliar faces in Booksmart, many of which come from many different backgrounds. Not only does this make for a delightfully diverse screen, but it allows for many different comedic persuasions. Booksmart‘s script offers depth to many of the characters (more on that later); essentially, characters come in from all angles to endlessly dunk on each other with hilarious takedowns and over-the-top actions. Strangely, everyone is throwing over 100 mph, but they all still have room to express themselves without the movie feeling overstuffed with energy.
One of the main standouts from the cast is Billie Lourd, daughter of the late, great Carrie Fisher, who’s character is best described as both a Xanaxed-out and overly aggressive soul with the otherworldly ability to pop up at any time. She was so great, in fact, that Wilde and the rest of the crew would write scenes on the spot for Lourd to act out during filming.
You get the sense that Wilde’s goal was to highlight just about every member of this cast in some way; they all have a moment, and they all make the most the most of their time. With these assemble movies, there’s always a weak link — consider Booksmart as the outlier.
Booksmart is this Generation’s Superbad
Superbad is an all-too-easy comparison to make in this instance; any movie about high schoolers having a wild, crazy night out on the town made today and into the future owes some of its charm to the 2007 comedy. Yet, the link between these two movies is very strong for a variety of reasons.
The best part of these movies is the projection of the audience member into the lead roles. Seth Rogen and his creative partner Evan Goldberg based Superbad off of their own experiences as teenagers. Booksmart similarly brims of lived-in experiences ratcheted up to the nth degree. Superbad captured a lot of feelings of teenagers in the mid-aughts, a sensation of frustration with the old but still searching for the new. Booksmart feels like the answer to the equation that Superbad attempted to solve, or at least the next logical step in that pre-college quest for understanding or meaning. Or maybe just the initial discovery of one’s self-worth and desires. It’s metamodernism with an added progressive twist that seems fitting in 2019.
All of this is filtered through our leads, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, who are both now stars in my mind. Their rapport is wonderful and effortlessly snappy. They truly seem like friends, and they get so many little moments to show it.
Olivia Wilde and Katie Silberman are the True Winners Here
The fact that Booksmart is Olivia Wilde’s debut is utterly astounding. The direction on display here is so measured and energetic; it’s the exact opposite of what you would expect of a first-timer. Considering that Booksmart does follow a standard crazy party movie formula in some sense, it was vital that Wilde add her own style to it. Under other, less confident directors, many of the movie’s more dramatic moments would come off like those in lesser comedies: a requirement of creating a movie with character arcs, not a genuine exploration of a range of emotions. Whatever Olivia Wilde makes next, you can count on me being one of the first in line to see it.
Though Wilde wasn’t alone. She had the help of a rising screenwriter (among a few, very talented others) in Katie Silberman, who previously worked on movies such as Isn’t It Romantic and Set It Up.
Silberman is widely praised with cleaning up Booksmart‘s script and offering a new spin on these broad characters. Booksmart is an incredible writing achievement, one that has our leads interact with typical ridiculous party characters only to then subvert those tropes. With Romantic, Set It Up, and Booksmart, we’re seeing a screenwriter who understands genre conventions and knows how to twist them for a satisfying movie experience that stands on its own. Think of her as the writing side of Rian Johnson, but with millions less of trolls and bots breathing down her neck. (So maybe post-The Brothers Bloom and pre-Looper — back when his approval rating was most certainly in the 90s but he hadn’t hit the mainstream yet.)
Booksmart takes all the best things of all the high school movies that have come before it and adds all the heart and depth you could ever ask for from such a movie. Under lesser hands, this is just another party movie. But with Wilde and Silberman calling the shots, Booksmart is near the top of its subgenre.
I can’t remember the last time that I laughed this hard at a movie. Though comparisons to other films are often half-baked, I envision a scenario where Booksmart earns the heightened cult status like something such as Superbad or any other high-end, all-in-one-night film. Every one of these movies is riffing on the same thing, where our main characters run into some crazy scenarios in the quest to live life to the fullest, but it’s the particulars that make Booksmart shine.
This is Olivia Wilde’s coming out party. Booksmart is her vision; she’s films with such a strong, vibrant hand that screams 2019 in every sense.
My hope is that many moviegoers take the plunge and seek this one out. It deserves every piece of praise it gets.
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I liked Booksmart; it was a well-written comedy with excellent acting performances provided by its leads.
Clearly from my review, I agree! :)
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