One of my favorite moments in any movie so far this year comes early in Olivia Wilde’s wonderful “Booksmart,” when a group of cynical burnouts make fun of a Yale-bound honors student — and she responds by painting a devastating picture of their respective futures.
It’s a classic triumphant-underdog moment, but the group’s reaction to the speech is an eye-opener for the honors student — and for us, as it serves notice we could be in for a refreshingly original take on the familiar last-week-of-high-school coming-of-age movie.
Indeed, thanks to an impressive feature directing debut by Wilde; one of the sharpest and funniest screenplays of the year, courtesy of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, and the absolutely winning lead performances by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, “Booksmart” lives up to that early promise, consistently delivering big laughs and sharp insights.
Certain elements are reminiscent of high school movies ranging from “Risky Business” to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to “The Breakfast Club” to “Say Anything” to “Superbad” to “Easy A,” and “Booksmart” often presents familiar characters and situations: the gigantic blow-out party, the last chance to reveal one’s true feelings to a longtime crush, well-meaning but clueless parents, the misunderstood “weirdo” kid, the big fight between best friends, etc.
But in virtually every scenario, director Wilde and the team of screenwriters serve up the material in a fresh and original manner.
Beanie Feldstein is the outwardly self-assured and ultra-focused Molly, who owns every room she enters with her larger-than-life personality, and Kaitlyn Dever is her best friend Amy, who’s just as funny and smart as Molly but operates in a much quieter key. For four years, Molly and Amy have devoted nearly every waking hour to studies and resume-padding extracurricular activities, and it’s paid off, as Molly is bound for Yale and Amy will be attending Columbia.
Only now, extremely late in the game — like they’re-about-to -graduate late in the game — does it occur to Molly and Amy they might have been able to excel academically and actually allow themselves to have a good time.
No problem. They’ll just pack four years’ worth of partying and letting loose into a single night. What could possibly go right?
This kick-starts a medley of offbeat and seriously funny comedic vignettes, involving everything from ride-share hijinks to the world’s saddest yacht party to the obligatory hallucinatory drug sequence. Director Wilde has fun with some bold and creative stylistic choices, but it never feels like self-indulgent filmmaking. It’s a matter of a talented artist making some pretty cool moves in her first foray into full-length moviemaking.
Once we get to the raucous, supercharged party in an enormous house (when are high school movie parents ever going to learn not to leave town when their children are about to graduate?), we follow a half-dozen interconnecting plot lines, as Molly begins to believe this could be a very special night with a certain guy, while Amy tries to get closer to the hipster skater girl (Victoria Ruesga) who seems to be equally interested in her as well.
One of the things I loved about “Booksmart” is how it finds room for the supporting characters, e.g., Skyler Gisondo’s obnoxious super-wealthy kid and Diana Silvers’ gorgeous, insult-throwing Mean Girl, to get second and third scenes in which we learn they’re more complicated and often more sympathetic than our initial impressions.
But all the sweet and smart and revealing moments, “Booksmart” doesn’t shy away from the raunchy and silly and R-rated comedy, including a hilarious bit involving lesbian pornography, a bit of bathroom vomiting at the worst possible moment — and bit about a sketchy pizza delivery driver that has a great payoff.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever have terrific best-buddy chemistry, and at heart that’s what “Booksmart” is — a buddy movie about two friends who are about to go their separate ways but will most likely stay in touch through college and remain close through the decades.
Because they’re not only book smart, they’re smart-smart, and they know what they have is something special.