Olivia Wilde has seen a lot of teen comedies. That much is clear from Booksmart, the directorial debut of an actress who has threatened stardom in the past but never quite gotten there. And not just the teen comedies that were big when she was growing up in the 1990s, as she has a clear familiarity with the 21st century and 2010s tweaks on the formula. But teen comedies are, in fact, among the most formulaic movies out there. Any major changes are not formal ones, but points of reference, musical choices, and increasingly progressive attitudes toward gender identity and sexuality. At their core, though, teen comedies have been more or less the same since John Hughes pioneered the genre. Booksmart, for all the praise it has earned, is not a significant departure from any of those fundamental building blocks.
Which doesn’t mean it’s not a breath of fresh air anyway. There’s something to be said for making the best version of a type of film for the moment in which it was released, and that’s a good way to describe Booksmart. It’s laudable not only for being a solidly constructed entertainment, but for further expanding the list of demographic types who get to see themselves among the character types represented in such a movie. Booksmart is not particularly progressive from a racial standpoint, as both of its leads are white. But it makes up for that by flipping the genders from the perhaps more typical “last night of high school” movie, in which two dudes would be more likely than two women to suck the marrow out of the remainder of their high school experience, getting involved in all sorts of shenanigans along the way. One of those women is an out lesbian, which earns the film additional points.
What holds it back a bit, though, is the rather extreme stereotypical presentation of other homosexuals in the cast. You could argue that it’s one step forward, two steps back, as two gay young men are presented as excessively flamboyant and performative, often feeling more akin to older school representations of token minorities in teen comedies. It’s just one example of the way Booksmart, despite all it does well, remains shackled to certain clichés it’s better than. This puts a ceiling on its appeal.
The story surrounds two high school overachievers, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), who have gotten in to great schools but are taking stock of their lives on the eve of graduation. The moment of crisis comes when they have a talk with a couple other students they perceive as dead-end losers … and find that they also got in to great schools. It becomes clear to Amy and Molly that the social sacrifices they made to get good grades, such as not dating or attending parties, were not necessary at all. Apparently, they could have had their cake and eaten it too. (Though one wonders what utopian high school this is that sends all of its students to Ivy League schools, especially with a dingbat like the one played by Jason Sudeikis as their principal.)
Given the limitations on this genre to begin with, no one would expect Wilde to try to rewrite book on the teen comedy. However, it’s hard not to notice the ways the film dabbles in tropes that have gotten a little old hat. One of these is the accidental ingestion of drugs, which happens when a wild girl classmate feeds the unwitting friends dosed strawberries. Points to Wilde for a cutaway sequence in which the characters imagine themselves as Barbie dolls, but how nice would it have been just to ditch this cliché entirely? Wilde seems like she might do that in a scene in which they get accidentally covered in a powdery substance, which they believe is cocaine. It turns out it’s just the crushed vitamins of this same wild girl. That’s a smart way of acknowledging the cliché without actually doing it, but then Wilde goes for the dosing about ten minutes later anyway.
Wilde also has a fondness for the over-used shot where characters strut in slow motion while owning the moment and wearing sick outfits. These scenes are always scored by banging hip hop, which feels like a self-conscious acknowledgement of the way the movie is otherwise deficient on racial matters. Wilde executes these scenes with skilled panache, but they don’t feel inspired, per se.
Just when you are stacking up complaints about the film, though, Wilde switches on an unexpected emotional intelligence in the second half of the film. Actually, it’s not unexpected for anyone who knows Wilde as an actress. She always brings real truth to her performances, and when Booksmart starts moving past its slapstick set pieces, it finds that same truth. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s also when Amy and Molly get to the party, which reveals how much time we’ve wasted on fool’s errands while getting there. This is where Wilde can explore how the girls will actually function in this unfamiliar environment – in the wild, if you will – and she delivers her best material. The requisite fight between the leads brings the party to a standstill, but it’s not played for laughs, and in fact, you might find yourself getting choked up.
It’s ultimately in a bunch of small details in the second half that Booksmart distinguishes itself. Whether that’s a shrewdly chosen song on the soundtrack, a feeling of heartbreak or betrayal perfectly encapsulated, or a delirious moment of joyous revelation, Booksmart sticks the landing.
And while the emotional moments are indeed what linger after the credits roll, some of these little details are comedic, too. One of the film’s best gender flips involves the aforementioned wild girl, Gigi, who is played by Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher’s daughter. Gigi keeps showing up in unexpected places and doing bizarre things, plunging into the ocean off the side of a boat one minute and being dry and in costume at a different party seemingly minutes later. It’s always funny, and in past movies, this role would have been played by a guy. But Wilde shows us that girls just wanna have fun, too.