‘Your ugly’ what?
Does Olivia Wilde‘s directorial debut Booksmart call to mind Superbad? You bet. Not only is it about two nerd best friends trying to punch above their weight class and party hard before graduating, but it also stars that film’s co-lead Jonah Hill‘s sister in a very similar mode. She (Beanie Feldstein‘s Molly) has just discovered (due to a ham-fisted loop-hole in plotting where students can’t reveal their collegiate destinations) that her slacker classmates somehow got accepted into Ivy League universities like her and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). While these two forsook all distractions to dedicate themselves to that end via studying, extracurricular work, and willful alienation, they didn’t actually get a leg up at all. Their reward was realizing they could have succeeded while having fun the entire time.
Well, that’s Molly’s knee-jerk realization anyway. It’s actually a bit of a tough sell considering we meet these two BFFs dancing, laughing, and … gasp … having fun. Amy doesn’t harbor any regrets as far as how they led their lives because they did it together and reached their goal. Would going to ragers every weekend while still accomplishing it have been better? Maybe. But that was never the plan. Molly’s reaction is therefore less about them and more about the people she lorded her superiority over without ever taking the time to see who they were above her own skewed perspective. Her anger stems from their excelling rather than her regret. And that’s what sets Booksmart apart from Superbad. Its leads are antiheroes who often prove bullies.
It takes a bit to understand this, though. That’s either intentional or perhaps a product of rewrites with three credited drafts (Katie Silberman; Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins; and Susanna Fogel). Either way, I’ll admit the first half of the film falls prey to its convention despite any enjoyment had. We watch as Molly drags Amy around town to find Nick’s (Mason Gooding) aunt’s house and let loose for the first time in eighteen years. Along the way we experience the former’s domineering personality and the latter’s exasperation. That’s not to say they don’t both revel in the excitement, only that they aren’t quite on the same page. Rather than initially infer upon their psychologies, however, this difference merely serves the plot by motivating their arrivals and departures.
So they must rely upon people they’ve never had to before. That could mean their school’s rich kid pariah Jared (Skyler Gisondo), their principal (Jason Sudeikis) in an abnormal venue, and the enigmatic Gigi (Billie Lourd) who seems to be everywhere at once with her equally frustrating and admirable relaxed demeanor. Molly and Amy end up so far outside their wheelhouse that they forget their formidable strengths could be of great assistance when it comes to finding an address no one is willing to supply. And while this leads to some crazy scenarios (hijacking Michael Patrick O’Brien‘s pizza delivery car for instance), it also ensures we recognize the subversion that has occurred. This isn’t about punching above their weight class, but removing their heads from their own asses.
The whole therefore becomes a tale of two halves. The first sees Molly and Amy falling into the usual tropes these comedies love exploiting for cheap laughs while the second mines deeper to show the surface humor hides poignant truths. Some aspects are heightened displays of individuality (the dynamic between Noah Galvin‘s George and Austin Crute‘s Alan feels over-the-top and volatile yet remains honest despite stereotyping) while others leave a lot to be desired (setting up Eduardo Franco‘s age doesn’t excuse Jessica Williams‘ actions as his teacher Ms. Fine), but beyond those peripheral displays is a crucible for its leads. Rather than exclude Molly and Amy from any party like these films often do, they’re conversely invited to too many. That they’re blind to this proves their faults.
It all leads to a wonderful party scene that brilliantly refocuses everything seen previously while also becoming the resonant type of coming-of-age tale with emotional gravitas you wouldn’t have expected considering how things began. This set piece is also where Wilde shines with her visuals and mood coalescing to provide weight rather than comedic pratfalls. It helps that this is really the only time Molly and Amy separate to go along their paths towards romance both desired and unexpected. The camera follows their respective sweet and hopeful selves through a mass of people above and below water before meeting once again for a long-awaited quarrel we can sense was boiling for years. Here’s where they open each other’s eyes to the failings that have made this night possible.
Don’t discount, however, that this climactic fight is also steeped in love and respect. The timing could have been better considering the evening’s adventure has completely frayed their nerves in a very public setting, but any idea of embarrassment is overshadowed by anger. You can’t ignore the fact that this has always been solely about Molly and Amy anymore. How something so conventional could thus turn so confidently towards authentic drama with layers of context made visible in an instant kind of took me off-guard. It’s not about how they exist within this world that they too long ignored, but how they will or won’t continue to coexist removed from them. While they’ll never see most of these people again after graduation, will they still see each other?
That’s an important question—one everyone encounters upon transitioning from teen to adult. Suddenly the genre structure Molly and Amy’s progression appeared beholden to breaks open to crystallize as an introspective teen drama trading lust and inclusion for strength and understanding. Because Dever has shown her remarkable acting skills previously (she’s spectacular juggling insecurity and turmoil in the second half here), you must spotlight Feldstein as the revelation in those regards by comparison. Her Molly portrays necessary growth by evolving her own understanding of her identity rather than dismantling it or labeling it as wrong. Booksmart is about self-awareness and becoming cognizant of our social interactions needing entitlement checked at the door (Molly Gordon‘s Triple A plays an important role highlighting this truth). It’s about maturity not chastity.
 Kaitlyn Dever stars as Amy and Beanie Feldstein as Molly in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release.
 Nico Hiraga stars as Tanner in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release.
 Billie Lourd stars as Gigi and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, BOOKSMART, an Annapurna Pictures release.