If you’re among the many who were charmed by Beanie Feldstein when she appeared as Saoirse Ronan’s faithful BFF in the indie breakthrough “Lady Bird” in 2017, you’ll probably want to take notice of “Booksmart,” a new film comedy which hits theaters on May 24.
In this contemporary twist on the classic “zany high school farce” formula, Feldstein stars alongside Kaitlyn Dever as two over-achieving seniors, Molly and Amy, who have spent the last four years of their lives sacrificing fun in favor of hard work and study. Molly may be running the student government single-handedly, but she’s not exactly popular; and although Amy has been out as a lesbian for the last two years, she’s still never even flirted with another girl.
Realizing they’ve been missing out, the girls decide to join their classmates at the year’s final, blowout shindig for one last chance to party, give in to their hormones and experience the wild side of teenage life.
As shepherded to the screen by actress Olivia Wilde, who makes an impressive directorial debut, the odyssey undertaken by this pair of unlikely young heroines leans heavily into the kind of over-the-top satirical excess that crept in around the fringes of the teen-comedy genre during its heyday in the mid-‘80s. Thanks to a smart, refreshing script (by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman), it’s able to wind its way through frequent moments of laugh-out-loud absurdity while retaining the sincerity that becomes vital when the “one crazy night” adventure gives way to the coming-of-age story that lies underneath its adolescent hijinks.
That it successfully takes us to a more grounded level is part of what makes “Booksmart” satisfying, but there’s an additional delight that comes from the way it takes the standard elements of the teen comedy format and subverts them for today’s world. This is not some romantic fantasy about finding the perfect prom date, nor is it a sex-obsessed quest to “go all the way.” While it may play with some of the same tropes as the testosterone-fueled, gender-normative teen movies of a bygone age, it redefines them in terms that free them from the tone-deaf assumptions of the past and makes them feel just as fresh as they are familiar.
One particularly modern stroke is the choice to make one of its two main characters LGBTQ. In Amy, the film offers a lesbian character whose sexuality is never treated as anything less than valid or equal; that she is gay is a matter of circumstance in the plot, not a twist that creates conflict or confrontation. It gives us a portrayal of first experience – something captured so often in films depicting hetero-couples — from a same-sex perspective, but without exploiting, fetishizing or sentimentalizing it. Perhaps best of all, even though some comedic mileage is gotten from the fact that Amy’s parents think Molly is her girlfriend, there is no effort to turn the two girls’ friendship into a romance — no doubt a result of the movie’s all-female writing team understanding that, despite the misconceptions of so many straight men, lesbians can actually just be friends with other girls without wanting to sleep with them.
There are other queer characters, too. Not counting the cute tomboy skater (Victoria Ruesga) that Amy watches from afar, who may or may not be gay, there’s at least one other out lesbian among the other students we meet, and there’s the fabulously gay George (Noah Galvin from “The Real O’Neals”) and Alan (Austin Crute), who appear to run the drama club like an ongoing theme party. While these latter characters verge toward stereotype, it’s done with a good-natured sense of tongue-in-cheek fun; in any case, like all the other exaggerated personalities that populate the movie, they seem to be as much in on the joke as everybody else.
The film’s stars are an ideal fit with its edgy, sophisticated tone. Feldstein’s quirky positivity comes bubbling up through Molly’s intensity; she’s an endearing bulldozer, an alpha female whose stubborn determination to be the smartest person in the room is somehow the saving grace that keeps her likable even in her most overbearing moments. As Amy, Dever is a perfect complement, the yin to Molly’s yang; she has the laid back, easy-going demeanor of a cool chick, but there’s an underlying vulnerability which deepens the character and gives her dimension. Together, they have an authentic rapport that makes us believe they’ve known each other all their lives, and there’s a joyous quality in their friendship that gives the movie its heart and soul.
The ensemble that surrounds them is no less important and no less effective. Leading the pack are the adorably goofy Skyler Gisondo (“Santa Clarita Diet”) as a “Richie Rich” party boy who flaunts his affluence to be part of the “in” crowd, and the magnificently loopy Billie Lourd (“Scream Queens,” “American Horror Story”) as the social scene’s “queen bee” who not only knows when and where everything is happening but somehow manages to be right in the middle of it, all of the time.
Representing the adult world are a collection of celebrities in supporting roles, likely present because of the involvement of Will Ferrell and former “Saturday Night Live” head writer Adam McKay as producers. These include Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s hilariously clueless parents, trying their best to be “cool” as they show support for their newly-out daughter, and Jason Sudeikis as a school principal whose thinly-stretched enthusiasm for his job can’t quite hold up to the pressure of dealing with his star pupil. For the most part, these grown-ups don’t inspire much confidence in a less-confusing future for their younger counterparts; they seem to be struggling just to keep up in a humorously grim world that makes no sense to them. The one exception is Jessica Williams as the quintessential “cool” teacher, Mrs. Fine, who nurtures Molly and Amy with her “woke” sensibilities and empowered demeanor even as she encourages them to get their groove on.
Movies about young people, especially comedies, often serve as a snapshot of its era’s culture, providing an ideal vehicle to explore the current state of social mores, boundaries and attitudes. The best of these — a category to which this film decidedly belongs — can do it without seeming preachy or pushing an agenda. Sure, by layering in 21st-century feminist thinking, “Booksmart” turns the formula inside out and pointedly eliminates the hetero-male bias that has traditionally been at the heart of the genre, but it also pokes fun at it. In other words, for all its self-aware smartness, it never loses sight of its need to make us laugh, and because it constantly catches us off guard by contrasting our expectations with what it gives us, it succeeds better than most big studio comedies could ever hope to do.