Let’s get this out of the way first; Booksmart is a good film.
Relying in no small part on two dynamic leads with an instantly cognizable, contagious charisma, every single scene where Kaitlyn Dever (Amy) and Beanie Feldstein (Molly) are permitted (absent intrusions by secondary characters) to leverage off each other works wonders. Whether it be their shared dancing greets, idiosyncrasies that can only arise from a lifetime of close friendship or trolling of Amy’s parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte), together the pair are ideally cast with dialogue to match.
Best exemplifying their abilities in their strongest confrontation which alternates between that heard and left to the imagination as first time feature Director Olivia Wilde shrewdly settles on panning between them, Amy and Molly’s final night before graduation, intent for the first and last time on attending a high school party, is here our backdrop.
The supporting cast (Jason Sudeikis among them) are entertaining as too are generally the varied situations the pair find themselves in once navigating their way to high school memories. A moving, often hilarious film that distinguishes itself somewhat amongst this era of school leaver comedies and/or dramas, it’s also far from perfect.
Booksmart will inevitably be compared to Superbad and not unfairly so. Derivative in no small part of the now classic where a shy, bookish figure is egged on by their slightly more outward long-term bestie on the cusp of graduation to impress at their final high school-do, the Jonah Hill equivalent role is notably played by the actor’s younger sister.
A different dynamic ensuing between Dever and Feldstein no question, reckoning with that evidently analogous between the formats and base characterisations of those front and centre is unavoidable. There’s even the car chase and some cops to boot, featured heavily in the promotional material.
Not detracting or distracting too greatly, what does is Booksmart’s upheavals in tone. American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You, Superbad… classic teen cinema has enjoyably escalated the theatrics as acts progress and then, choosing to ram those emotional punches, dialled it back; letting the drama play out and thankfully sustaining the tonal shift so as not to negate or undermine that resonant.
Booksmart, following the formula in part, sees our heroines go through any number of hoops to arrive at those very well staged dramatic moments, only to in the final act revert to its more ridiculous tone and a very ridiculous one at that. The ludicrous premise for one character even being able to attend graduation might have worked as a gag in the more outrageous earlier segments but feels forced and out of place following a series of long, much more grounded sequences.
Most of these outrageous segments are duly fun, even if the near-obligatory drug-fuelled encounter doesn’t exactly depict how drugs work. Billie Lourd is excellent as a partygoer who just happens to be everywhere while Skyler Gisondo surprises with one of this film’s real about-turns. As entertaining as this cast are, it’s still frustrating to see our leads, in any scene where they are not given the scope to simply play off each other, be settled with but one recurring form of humour; the nonplussed, shocked reaction to whatever craziness any given character promptly decides to unleash.
On a side note, the blink and you’ll miss it Virginia Woolf reference is perhaps the best piece of character building via mise en scene in cinema this year. Including the words “A Room of One’s Own” on a sign adorning Amy’s room, signalling altogether that she is literary, smart, funny, a feminist and an outsider, tells us everything we need to know about one of this film’s two central, welcomely complex characters.
Riotous, littered with great performers and frequently unimaginative, Booksmart deserves to be seen even if it’s but patches of what came before.
Booksmart screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival and is in cinemas from July 11