With the pin-sharp emotional intelligence of Lady Bird and the restraint of Netflix’s Sex Education, the high school drama is undergoing a quiet revolution. Less concerned with the over-the-top gross-out potential of stories like American Pie, this new slate looks at high school relationships through a much more muted and thoughtful lens.
Or so we thought. Because while Booksmart does indeed carry this same emotional intelligence, it does so while also being relentlessly, riotously cocksure and devastatingly funny.
Caught in the gap between graduating high school and starting college, best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) begin to wonder whether their unimpeachable adolescence was really worth it. Their squeaky-clean records may have secured them places at top colleges, but they’re not the only ones. The seemingly uncaring and knowingly outlandish have also arrived at the same result.
And so, the best friends decide to use the night before their graduation as a chance to make up for lost time. What follows is a hilarious, whistlestop tour through the school’s chaotic social scene. One which sees the friends chart new ground in more ways than one on the road to a tantalising party.
The best place to start is with the characters who anchor the whole film. Played to perfection by Dever and Feldstein, Amy and Molly are superbly drawn friends whose bond drives the whole story. This integrity ensures that every moment, be it euphoric or devastating, is accentuated by the friendship.
The leads are supported by a game supporting cast who cover the usual high school stereotypes. Yet Booksmart’s smarts at least partially stem from its ability to scratch deeper than pastiche. Whether it’s the waspish family of the flamboyant Am-Drammer or the real-life rationale behind ‘Triple A’s’ nickname, the film plays intelligently with the contradictions which flood adolescent life. This is perhaps most pleasingly played-out through the character of Jared, who is delightfully played by an earnest Skyler Gisondo.
Not every comedic note plays perfectly, but the overall effect is completely charming. Olivia Wilde, directing for the first time, relentlessly deploys set piece after set piece to secure your attention throughout. After a tragic boat party, unfortunate taxi experience and more, the pair finally arrive at the fabled party. This slideshow captures the dizzying effect of growing up so quickly in such a short space of time.
This constant whizzing, complete with a thumping soundtrack and eye-popping visuals, also serves to sharpen the film’s more knowingly emotional moments. There is an extended sequence in which the music almost completely stops. The apparent serenity of a pool slowly flows into an argument which is at its most gut-wrenching when the sound is completely cut. In this instance, and throughout, you don’t need to hear the words to see the effect they can have.
It’s the thrilling balance of laugh out loud moments (a particular shout-out has to go Amy’s Dad Doug, whose first line in the film is spit-your-drink-out levels of funny) and ever-present heart which catapults Booksmart into the pantheon of coming-of-age films. Laden with emotional and comedic catharsis, it’s a similarly seminal moment for the director and stars alike.