Olivia Wilde's directorial debut about overachieving high schoolers learning to lighten up may take notes from playbooks established by an entire era of coming of age comedies, but manages to sing with its own unique voice with a sense of style and a string of contemporary twists that set it apart from the pack and provide a modern coming of age comedy its generation desperately needs and deserves.
At first glance, it's easy to mistake "Booksmart" as a fairly mundane sample of a glut of crass, broad, well meaning progressive but ultimately poorly directed comedies; but beneath its exterior, planted firmly between off-the-wall indie sensibilities and an almost manic editing style reminiscent of irreverent mainstream features, the film contains a surprising amount of depth that betrays the basic presentation of its own marketing.
Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein magnetic and endearing chemistry compel the film forward with just enough improvisation to feel authentic but ultimately landing on a strong script to come across as real human beings and the character actors they're surrounded by dedicate to inhabiting their surreal world stitch together with a stylized Generation Z meets Post-Grunge aesthetic and quick cut editing designed to ebb and flow with the setting and mood of their roadtrip-esque antics to find a wild party and leave their social mark upon the graduating class of their high school.
The movie definitely delivers consistent laughs from start to finish but never at the cost of characterization, which makes the moments of drama that crop up surprising and all the more astonishingly effective. The realization of its protagonists’ needs to step out of their shell comes at the realization of just how hollow the standing of the institutions they've been playing into truly are and the toll that may take upon them. "Booksmart" challenges the social perceptions we are brainwashed into buying into when we're young, displays the damages of wholly subscribing to stereotypes and binary thinking, and demystifies the American myth that status and institutional sanctioning is entirely merit based.
While all of these messages certainly land a level of unexpected weight to the film, it doesn't do so in a self-righteously ponderous capacity indicative of a cynical outlook on life but rather a much needed reminder to young adults that these early years of adult life will be the only years of guaranteed freedom from the burdens of the world they will have and should be treasured and thoroughly lived and explored while they last. In times where it occasionally feels like the sun rising the next day isn't a guarantee, that's definitely something they should be hearing now more than ever. Perhaps, I'm putting a little to much stock into that message for a comedy but it's definitely a message that I wish I had heard and taken to heart when I was the same age as these girls.
"Booksmart" is not necessarily a film for everybody; ignoring the heavy feeling of non sequiturs composing key scenes of the film that won't be everyone's cup of tea in terms of comedy, the movie also has all of the hallmarks of an aggressively independent production from the mind of its creator that understandably won't resonate with everybody because of how personal it feels.
Those warts in its makeup however ultimately go a long way in making the movie feel far fresher than the time tested tropes that it runs through, making for a comedy that's consistently amusing at worst and hilarious and thoughtful at best.
4 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.