SXSW review: Booksmart is a confidently stellar debut


Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a slick throwback to the best friend films of the ’80s while asserting its own unique message.

The last day of school comedy is a genre all its own though it’s usually filtered through a male gaze, following bland, undefined boys hoping to learn something as well as get laid. Olivia Wilde took that archetype and reconfigured it for female audiences with her directorial debut, Booksmart. Wilde’s keen directorial eye crafts a film that’s almost verite-level in its authenticity and portrayal of teen girls today.

Amy and Molly (Kaitlyn Deaver and Beanie Feldstein) are best friends about to separate for the first time in their lives. Amy is going to Botswana on a humanitarian mission while Molly’s been accepted into Yale. But when the duo realize their presumably dumb classmates also made it into elite schools, while still finding time to party, they decide to spend their final night together and attend a classmate’s gathering.

The premise immediately draws comparisons to Superbad and with that conceit in mind, Wilde and the screenwriters craft something relatable to girls but also humorous enough to pull in the Seth Rogen crowd. For Amy and Molly they’ve had fun, just free of the drinking and stupidity. But when they discover their hard work has put them on the same level as everyone else, they decide to spend an evening with the “in” crowd. The script looks at judgement and how superiority can come from those on the fringes.

Molly is incredibly intelligent and, yes, not aesthetically conventional, but she still has the ability to look down her nose at people. Molly could only be played by Beanie Feldstein who continues to situate herself as this generation’s Molly Ringwald. Feldstein is the mistress of reactions, from anger — her “are you kidding me” should be a ringtone — to extreme shock. As she stalks the halls, demanding her classmates tell her where they went to school before seething in rage is excellent, coupled by Wilde’s eye for composition that places Feldstein in the center of a room full of chaos.

Cinematographer Jason McCormick captures not only the beauty of the two leads, but the inner warmth and security that comes from being best friends. The honeyed lighting and close-ups as Molly and Amy share their secrets is like being in front of a roaring fire. There’s a safety and security in how the two girls are framed and composed, even when the situation itself isn’t. Everything looks lush and exciting with a scene of Deaver swimming in a pool, bodies swirling around her, that’s jaw-dropping.

In a movie where both girls are academically inclined there isn’t necessarily a straight man (pun intended). Feldstein’s Molly is the organizer, but Deaver’s Molly is just as pragmatic. Deaver’s is responsible for being more deadpan but her lovelorn relationship with a girl named Ryan creates a warm center for a character who could have been swallowed up by Feldstein’s brashness. Their camaraderie is that of a modern-day Lucy and Ethel with a full history evoked between the two. When the friends finally have an argument, they unleash decades of issues with each other,

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Booksmart, especially in comparison to Superbad, isn’t in the need for a relationship or getting laid. It’s about the friendship that exists between Molly and Amy. By the time “Unchained Melody” plays at the climax, you’ve gone through the high school emotions just as much as them.

Unlike Lady Bird, wherein the title character has to learn to be an adult, Booksmart is about two independent women going out into the world on their own but being the better for having each other. Olivia Wilde is a skillful director in the making, crafting a movie that will bring you back to the good old days.