SXSW Review: Booksmart


There’s something to be said for working hard to achieve goals. It’s what makes successful people successful, according to the barrage of “How To” articles that circulate on a regular basis. Tunnel vision and depriving oneself of simple joys in life is often the direction taken towards achieving a single-minded goal.

In Booksmart, this is the life that Molly and Amy have lived, culminating in their high school graduation. But as the next phase in life approaches, one session of bathroom stall eavesdropping sends the two best friends into a whirlwind night of adventure and self-realization.

BOOKSMART Official Trailer (2019) Olivia Wilde, Lisa Kudrow Teen Movie HD

Director: Olivia Wilde
Release Date: May 24th, 2019
Rated: NR

Molly and Amy are two best friends who don’t do anything without the other. They drive to school together. They pass compliments back and forth to a charmingly annoying degree. They have fake IDs so they can study at the 24-hour university library. They don’t party together, or at all. It’s this last bit of info that is most prevalent as the story unfolds.

In a school that — for whatever reason — discourages students from talking about where they’ve been accepted to college, Molly is the Class President and on her way to Yale, all according to her plan. On the last day of school, during one unfortunately timed bathroom visit, Molly overhears other students making fun of her. In a failed attempt to put them in their place, she learns that the partying kids who presumably suck at school are actually going to top colleges with one (straight from the set of Dazed and Confused) lined up to work for Google. “It’s not Apple,” he says as she stares in disbelief, “but it’s six-figures.”

This realization is caught beautifully as Molly panics. In a slow-motion sequence, she walks through the halls with a blank stare as her fellow students toss confetti and water-balloon condoms in final day celebrations. Determined to have just one night of pure teenage fun before graduation, Molly convinces the reluctant Amy to go to a house party later that night. After a quick lie to her over-encouraging parents (a great Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte), the two set out on a comical adventure with unexpected detours and more self-reflection than either expected.

It’s easy to compare the film to Superbad. Two best friends who aren’t much for hanging out with the popular crowd make one, last-ditch effort to go nuts before their lives change forever. But Booksmart changes course in its supporting cast of characters. Sure the movie is about Molly and Amy, but we learn a great deal about other students as well. The good-looking jock is a huge Harry Potter fan. The rich kid who tries to impress everyone is secretly lonely because no one has taken the time to get to know him and what he aspires to do in life. The girl who sleeps around shares that she’s deeply hurt by the nickname given to her in a moment of open vulnerableness.

These characters aren’t here just for the sake of building Molly and Amy’s story, and that’s a big part in what sets this movie apart. Director Olivia Wilde has taken tropes of high-school hijinks and molded them into one comically wild night while adding beautiful segments to keep audiences on their toes. One such sequence involves an unexpected dance scene between two students. With an incredibly smooth one-shot and an upbeat mix of a classical song, the two swirl through a house once filled with people, as if they were the only two on earth.

Wilde’s casting choices proved effective for the lead roles. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Devers have an on-screen friendship that defines genuineness. They’re opposites to some degree, but have a lot in common. They know how to push each other’s buttons, for better or for worse, and this ultimately comes to a head during a heated argument between the two. As they argue, the camera pans 180 degrees back and forth while the words start to fade out. Using this camera work as opposed to the more common and sweeping 360-degree spin not only captures the magnitude of the argument but the reactions of those around them. Phones start lighting up as other students film the fight while all other conversation is reduced to concerning stares. Here are two friends, who only hang out with each other, arguing in front of a party they were never expected to go to. It’s as true an argument as anyone has had with a best friend, and the frustration and pain are captured on both sides.

Prior to this moment, the two have been through a lot in one night. Instead of arriving at the party they want to go to, they wind up on a nearly empty yacht that another student has rented out in an attempt to buy friendship. After eating drugged strawberries unbeknownst, the two find themselves at a murder mystery dinner hosted by the theater kids (the drugs from the strawberries kick in here, and the resulting hallucination is one of the funniest parts of the movie). After wrong party detours that included a Lyft ride from their principal and trying to threaten a pizza delivery guy using their hair as masks, the two finally arrive at the right spot. Both encourage each other to break out of their shell. Molly tries making a move towards a guy and Amy is intent on going after her crush, without knowing if her crush is even gay in the first place. The two girls find what they’re looking for, even if it wasn’t what they were looking for.

Wilde’s journey through the film is fast-paced enough to avoid dull moments and lingers just enough on most jokes that it doesn’t feel like overkill. It’s an impressive feat for a first film, and the ability to capture the intricacies of bonded friendship as the two try to create one more great memory before the next phase of their life starts. There are certainly comparisons to Superbad, Animal House, and even Juno at times in action and in dialogue (Devers has an Ellen Page tint in this film). Finding a new edge to a party movie is a tough ask, but the combination of Wilde and writers Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern found a way to forge a new direction. Booksmart is funny, endearing, and a genuine testament to friendship. 

Nick Hershey