Whilst there have been some terrific films made for, and/or about, teenagers in recent years, such as the likes The Edge of Seventeen, Eighth Grade, Love, Simon and Lady Bird, actor-cum-director Olivia Wilde has delivered something really special with Booksmart. This stellar high school comedy never debases itself or its characters like many before it have done and a brilliant cast delivers an honest, insightful and hilariously funny exploration of friendship and the pressures, expectations and insecurities of being a teenager. The young actors are pitch perfect in striking a balance between the moments of hilarity (of which there are plenty) and the more emotional elements of the story. On the eve of their high school graduation, best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) find their world turned upside down when they learn that the sacrifices they have made to finish top of their classes and secure a place in the best universities have all been for nothing.
When Molly discovers that their fellow students, despite their penchant for partying, roadside blowjobs and a distinct lack of commitment to their studies, will actually be attending the very same colleges, her initial anger makes way for a determination to make up for lost time, taking a somewhat more reluctant Amy along for the ride. Of course, the opinions the girls have of their classmates are only based on what they think they know about them, because they have never allowed themselves the distraction of friendship beyond their exclusive circle of two. Setting out to attend a wild graduation party, the girls are faced with a serious obstacle in that they have not been invited and have no idea where it is being held. Much hilarity ensues as they set forth to seek out the pleasures they have denied themselves, a mission that is seemingly doomed to failure. Both Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Dever (Short Term 12) are superb as the two friends whose bond and belief in each other is unshakeable.
The supporting cast is given something more to do than simply present as high school stereotypes and, ultimately, Molly and Amy learn that the impressions of their classmates they have formulated are wrong. While these characters may not be afforded a completely comprehensive exploration, they are certainly much more than a cliché. Every bit as strong as the connection between Molly and Amy, the friendship between lonely rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and the damaged Gigi (Billie Lourd) is beautifully realised. In fact, Lourd comes very close to upstaging the two leads as a character whose zany antics are the product of something much darker, although Wilde never offers up any hints as to what that might be. Sex and sexuality are handled without the sleazy braggadocio that drives so many teen films in which males are the chief protagonists, from Amy’s quiet crush on another girl to a great scene in which Triple A (Molly Gordon) forces Molly to question her judgmental attitude about the choices others make.
There is so much to like here, not the least of which is a stop-motion drug hallucination that is brilliantly bizarre. Wilde and her team, including cinematographer Jason McCormack and editor Jamie Gross, have created something that looks great and, if there is a shortcoming to be found, it is the adult characters – Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents and Jason Sudeikis as the Uber-driving school principal – who are the weakest links. However, on the back of wonderfully deranged and emotionally moving performances from two gifted young actresses, Booksmart soars as a unique, intelligent and uproariously fun piece of cinema.