Joining the likes of Jordan Peele, John Krasinski and Greta Gerwig, actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde makes her debut with the really quite fabulous Booksmart. Wilde makes a series of choices behind the camera that elevate this film beyond its teen comedy roots and marks her as a figure with immense skill, and one to certainly keep an eye on. She has produced a film that stands out for the warmth and humanity it brings to its story.
Booksmart follows Amy and Molly in their final days of high school. Having gained places at prestigious universities, the duo realises they've not partied at all in their last year. So they set out to have one final, crazy night together, in the pursuit of an almost-mythical house party.
There are fun adult cameos (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as supportive parents are particular highlights) but this film belongs to its young cast. A great deal of Booksmart's charm comes from the casting of Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in the central roles. They give magnificent performances, making the fabulously written parts their own. Dever brings an awkward quality to Amy that gives her turn heart beyond her quippy lines, whilst Feldstein has a presence that dominates her scenes making Molly a suitably intense proposition. The performers bounce off each other, leading to a masterful chemistry between the pair. Surrounding Dever and Feldstein is an ensemble packed with talent, with every character treated with affection and given moments to develop beyond their initial stereotype. I was particularly drawn to Billie Lourd's delightfully odd turn as Gigi, whilst Noah Galvin has a number of stand-out moments. But it again points to the strength of Wilde's direction how strong the performances are, how comfortable the actors seem and the depth they give to this film.
And really it is Wilde's direction that is the standout here. From a number of beautifully framed shots to a soundtrack of on-point musical choices, she directs with the confidence of someone much more advanced in their career. The end destination of Booksmart's narrative is fairly predictable, but the journey is not. The film gains greatly from surreal touches of humour and a willingness to surprise in individual story moments. Booksmart is one of the most beautiful and surprising films so far in 2019. To say I loved this movie would be an understatement.
There is something disingenuous about comparing Booksmart to Superbad as some have taken to doing. It feels an entirely separate beast, a less crass, more humane take on the final days of American teen life. And with Dever and Feldstein it has two of the finest comedic performances in recent years, brimming with charm and built on a lived-in chemistry. Olivia Wilde may very well have directed the perfect film on her first try. Watch this film and treasure it.