In “Booksmart,” high school seniors Molly and Amy go together like vodka and Red Bull. BFFs since childhood, they are kindred spirits, two brainiacs who’ve shunned the high school social scene in pursuit of straight-A’s and Ivy League acceptances. They are a two-girl clique: Class president Molly (Beanie Feldstein) has designs on obtaining a seat on the Supreme Court, and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is headed to Botswana on a mission trip. Their classmates - the jocks, drama kids, class clowns, mean girls, tomboys, preps, etc. - don’t get (or like) them. Lucky for them, first-time director Olivia Wilde understands Generation Z perfectly in crafting a well-written, strongly acted coming-of-age story with surprising depth, not unlike what Greta Gerwig did with “Lady Bird.”
You could call “Booksmart” the female “Superbad” (irony alert: Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s sister), but it’s got more on its mind than sex and partying. Wilde presents a two-hander about self-actualization and navigating that sweet spot between adolescence and adulthood.
The film opens on the last day of school with the girls realizing how much they’ve sacrificed by focusing exclusively on academics. They decide to spend the night before graduation partying like the rest of their classmates, whom the friends are horrified to learn still got into top colleges. Beneath the surface, Molly and Amy are not that much different than their peers. Each harbors a secret crush they’re determined to hook up with by the end of the night.
It’s down the rabbit hole they go, as the girls make their way to cute Nick’s (Mason Gooding) bash. But first they need the address. Their quest takes them to two other gatherings where there are mishaps involving drug-dipped strawberries, lesbian porn and a creepy pizza delivery guy. Yes, the plot is familiar, and that is indeed a drawback, but the movie is the rarity that gets teenage life right. Even in some of its more exaggerated bits, there is truth.
“Booksmart” can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with “Dazed and Confused” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Like those classics, “Booksmart” has a rogue’s gallery of eccentric supporting players (Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Eduardo Franco) who might seem one-note at first but travel mini-arcs Wilde and screenwriter Katie Silberman (Netflix hit “Set It Up”) slyly cook up. The script is just a gem, so packed with hysterical dialogue that I willed myself not to laugh out loud because I didn’t want to miss a word - especially lines from Billie Lourd (daughter of Carrie Fisher), playing Gigi, a bohemian party girl with the uncanny ability to pop up everywhere Molly and Amy go. There’s also plenty of feminist nods to Michelle Obama, RBG, and Malala. A “Resist” bumper sticker hangs on the back of Amy’s beat-up Volvo wagon. But the girls talk like real teenagers, too, dropping well-placed f-bombs and other salty and snarky turns of phrase.
In most teen movies, adults don’t register. That’s not the case with “Booksmart.” Jason Sudeikis lends his wife, Wilde, an assist as the principal urging the girls to lighten up. Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte play Amy’s kooky parents, and Jessica Williams is the “cool” teacher.
As “Booksmart” moves toward its climax, Wilde never loses her grip. You can feel her stamp and see her woke-female vision. Part of the reason the movie is close to transcendent is because Wilde never panders to her audience. She seems to respect adolescence and all its craziness. This young generation is a whole new animal, and Wilde certainly aces her first test.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jason Sudeikis, Noah Galvin, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Mason Gooding, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jessica Williams.
(R for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking - all involving teens.)