Booksmart (2019)

Annapurna Pictures As someone who has been labeled “booksmart” more than once, I can testify that it ranks damn near the top of backhanded compliments.  To me, it was always a coded transference of someone else’s intellectual insecurity:  After all, if you can comfortably discuss Macbeth and “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” then making everyday conversation with you must be like talking to a wiffle bat.  Booksmart depicts two high school seniors who’ve spent their entire lives hunkered in a foxhole of academic isolation, only to find that their classmates have long abandoned them to a slow social death.  Their attempt to rejoin the high school battle for one last charge forms the basis of one of the most whacked-out, insightful, and legitimately funny teen comedies in a good long time.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) tromp through high school, smug and satisfied with their own elitism.  Molly’s world gets demolished when she overhears several classmates thrashing her as being repellant and awkward.  She angrily tosses her academic resume at them, only to have it thrown back in her face:  Her detractors have partied, built social lives, and found their way into elite institutions.  Despondent, Molly mopes her way back to Amy and observes that while their formative years have been loaded with achievements, they’ve also been devoid of adventures.  The girls decide to end their school year with an Animal House-style frenzy of shit-faced shenanigans that will transform them into local legends.

What follows is an exercise in adorable tomfoolery, as Amy and Molly embark on chaotic night of discovery about themselves and their friendship dynamic.  Picture Dazed and Confused with sharper focus and more pronounced social satire, and Can’t Hardly Wait with smarter and more engaging characters.  The movie deploys the normal compliment of teen clichés, only to riff on them and our collective perceptions:  Amy and Molly bounce around parties hosted by the Rich Kid Who Wants to Buy Friends, the Pretentious Theater Geeks Who Always Overplay Their Roles, and finally the Hunky Jock Who’s Dumb Like a Fox.  This disparate group of kids challenges the girls into a social growth spurt, and all the pains that come with it.

As the titular overachievers, Dever and Feldstein anchor the film with performances that are both broadly funny yet completely grounded in reality.  Even when the movie deliberately goes over-the-top, Amy and Molly remain relatable and rootable characters.  The film also receives strong comedic support from Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s parents, who politely tiptoe around her lesbianism.  Billie Lourd steals most of her scenes as a lunatic classmate who somehow pops up at every party the girls attend.

Booksmart makes the wise move of taking gentle jabs at its lead characters, rather then full-on body blows.   Like many, if not most people who get dismissively labeled as booksmart, Amy and Molly have long responded by wearing their superiority like armor.  This is an overtly clever, deceptively moving, and uncommonly strong teen movie about two super-intelligent girls who must confront their own social myopia.  Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut has the skill and patience of someone who’s been doing this for years.  Booksmart is one of the best movies of 2019 so far.

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Author: Todd Wofford

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