“What’s a year?” is one of the final lines of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart. Well, a year can be a lot. In this new take on the raunchy coming-of-age comedy, a single night has changed the perspectives of life for the two leads in countless ways. A year can be a whole great deal. We all think we know how everything operates until one incident affects us. A year provides many of those instances. Right off the bat, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) feels as though she wasted her entire high school era. She did nothing but work hard, aspiring to be like one of the many female leaders she admires (Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, the Notorious R.B.G.). She finds out all of the people she shunned made it into schools as prestigious as she did. People who seemingly barely studied and partied all of the time are getting into Yale. So Molly encourages her friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) to party the night before graduation. They need a taste of the fun life.
The biggest mistake has nothing to do with the film. It’s everyone else. This label that Booksmart gets (it being the new “Superbad”, or "the Superbad for girls”) is entirely wrong. As fun as Superbad may be, Booksmart is a much better film through and through. It allows the film to breathe whenever necessary, and it makes for a much more fulfilling experience. There is plenty of fun, for sure. The best part is that Booksmart proves that inclusivity does not equal safe. With an incredibly diverse cast, the film still dives deep into offensive — yet tasteful — territory. No one here is a blatant stereotype. These are fully realized characters just behaving immaturely, and you can sense a major difference between the two in a film like this.
Another point to note is how experienced Olivia Wilde already seems. In so many instances for actor-turned-director starts, you can sense some great knowledge by the new filmmaker. With Wilde’s work here, you would have never guessed this was the work by a newcomer. The film pounces between humourous and serious enough to replicate life, and not seem like it has to take these shifts. Already, the pacing is a good sign for the film, because you know there is going to be a lot of content ahead, and none of it will drag. Aside from all of that, Wilde employs many director tricks (mainly camera-operated): contra zooms (to focus on a shocked teenager), and a lengthy shot (the anxious moment where a world comes crashing down) are some key examples. Yet, she utilizes these techniques so well, that they never feel arbitrary. For a film that is very comfortable making many sex and genital jokes, it’s actually detailed astonishingly.
This is what sets Booksmart further ahead from its peers. It’s not like bad stuff happens just to get some moods going. You actually feel as though you are witnessing something real. The jokes never take first priority. The story is always the main focus. At first, you may feel like this is your typical end-of-highschool comedy, because Molly and Amy take a number of stops before getting where they need to go. Yet, all of these faces come back around in some way or another. Between goofy teenagers you vow to stay away from, and adults you may not know as well as you think, Booksmart is highly clever when it comes to its core theme: you cannot know somebody just by judging them on the outside.
Booksmart is so well made, it’s one of those cases where elements are maybe accidentally more contextual than intended. I’m referring to the varied soundtrack, of course. We have everything from Santigold and Death Grips, to older stuff like Jurassic 5 and Alanis Morissette. Is this a representation of how all generations have their own forms of rebellious music? Could this just be the songs that Wilde likes and wanted featured? What about these just being the picks of Dan the Automator, who did the score for the film? Who knows. All of the songs sound great in context, especially the many hazy tunes that turn a party into an out-of-body experience.
I feel like many “teen” actors (performers that act in high school era works, whether they actually are teenagers or not) need that one film to send them out of the genre and into the echelons of other great styles. The work that Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever put forth here may just be that golden ticket. Both are funny, yet highly relatable. We all tried too hard as teenagers. Let’s face facts. In the way that last year’s Eighth Grade showcased great levels of vulnerability, so does Booksmart in a smaller capacity (but not to a lesser effect). The chemistry between both leads is infectious; their distance is what tests them, and they pass with flying colours.
What makes Booksmart truly special, is how it is always aware that you can have many moods if you mesh them properly. Between dream sequences and harsh realities (and sometimes a mixture of the two: I’m thinking the pool scene), Booksmart actually becomes a moving film. Who would have thought a film that kicks off with some gross jokes would intentionally drive you towards getting teary eyed? Well, this is a rare case.
Booksmart is an appropriate title for the film, but it’s also the best name for the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde. This is not a first effort by someone who wants to dabble in making pictures. This is the work of a Molly, Amy, or Olivia, who relates to her two lead characters on what is a clear amount of research done. Wilde has created a portfolio of what she understands about film in the form of a single film, and it ends up being one of the best films of the year. This is not someone who just wanted to try something new. This was an artist that has always wanted to make a film. I am beyond thrilled to see where Wilde goes from here. As for now, Booksmart is luckily on Netflix, meaning we can revisit this film as we please as quickly as possible. Shall I reload the film?
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.