Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Annapurna Pictures releases the film on Friday, May 24.
The teen party movie has been done and redone so many times it may as well be an algorithm, so every new movie that rises to the challenge faces heavier expectations. “Booksmart,” yet another buddy movie about one wild night at the end of high school, confronts these odds with a savage wit that never slows down.
Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut transforms Katie Silberman’s episodic script into a relentless stream of hilarious antics rooted as much in the authentic chemistry of its two leads as their zany misadventures. The best comedy of its kind since “Superbad,” Wilde’s slick, unpredictable romp can sometimes feel like several movies at once. This riotous, candy-colored celebration of sisterhood is so dense with anarchic developments it often threatens to collapse into itself, but avoids lingering on any gag long enough to let that happen.
For all its rapid-fire entertainment value, “Booksmart” revolves around a straightforward story of teen friendship: Best pals Amy (rising star Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, in a more prominent and boisterous variation on her “Lady Bird” persona) have forged such a close bond as the movie begins that they have little need for anyone else. When Amy rolls up to Molly’s house the day before graduation, the pair stop for their own awkward dance party in the street; at school, they exude a confidence that their studiousness has allowed them to maintain a leg up on their peers. “Fuck them in their stupid fucking faces,” Molly asserts in the opening moments, popping a retainer into her mouth, establishing the movie’s vulgar energy upfront.
But when Molly boasts to her cynical classmates that she’s going to Yale, she suddenly realizes she’s not alone — and that much of the class has not only managed to achieve similar impressive academic and professional plans, but they’ve done it while partying up a storm. Wilde and cinematographer Jason McCormick capture this revelation in a lavish slo-mo in the high school hallway, as hordes of students celebrate with streamers and water-filled condoms, once of which bursts on a baffled Molly’s face.
Needless to say, this new information kicks Molly’s competitive instincts into an even higher gear, as she cajoles Amy into a strategy to make up for missed time in the night ahead. “We are A+ people going to an A+ party,” she tells Amy, a self-deprecating klutz who rolls with the plan even as she seems more confident retreating further into their shell. The movie wastes no time establishing the girls’ appealing dynamic: Molly’s a garrulous overachiever who relies on Amy’s lower-key tone for stability’s sake, while Amy — who’s openly gay but sexually inexperienced — allows Molly’s ceaseless enthusiasm to guide her routine. The pair’s symmetrical relationship already has a deadline, since Amy plans to head to Botswana when Molly goes to college, which means an angry showdown about their friendship’s uncertain future is inevitable. But the familiar beats charge through “Booksmart” with the same zippy energy as the many amusing twists to come.
Over the course of a long evening, the girls hurdle across town in search of debauchery that eludes them to a comical degree. First, they wind up on a nearly-empty cruise ship with affable rich kid Jared (a very funny Skyler Gisondo) and his loopy, hyperactive girlfriend Gigi (Billie Lourd, even funnier). That dead end leads them to a buttoned-up performance party by the class’ two theater queens, where an accidental drug trip unfolds as an impressive stop-motion animated sequence that may as well be an homage to Todd Haynes’ “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.” All of these developments happen as they keep following the bread crumbs to the night’s big house party, where various tensions come to a head — along with unpredictable twists aplenty.
Even as it adheres to formula, “Booksmart” keeps up a relentless beat, careening from fantasy sequences to awkward sexual encounters with an alluring flow of fast-paced dialogue and an exuberant pop soundtrack. Silberman, whose “Set It Up” and “Isn’t It Romantic” scripts have hinted at her potential a commercial comedy auteur, has conceived of an ebullient and bawdy duo whose ability to mask their insecurities with attitude suggest early versions of the twentysomething troublemakers on “Broad City.”
It should come as no surprise that Wilde imports her screen experience to become an actor’s director, favoring closeups and allowing her jubilant stars to define the movie’s delicate balance of cartoonish delivery with an emotional foundation. Feldstein follows in the footsteps of brother Jonah Hill as a lovable dope, while Dever invigorates the “smart-ass teen” trope with renewed depth. No matter how silly it gets, “Booksmart” never sacrifices the authenticity of its two leads.
“Booksmart” juggles a few too many subplots and frivolous supporting roles, but that itself mimics the girls’ desperate quest to make the most of their finite time together. Wilde evades sentimentalizing this situation any more than its sarcastic characters can stand. Right down to the jarring cut to black in its finale, “Booksmart” excels at celebrating a friendship strong enough to guarantee that the party never really ends until the credits roll.
“Booksmart” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Annapurna Pictures releases it May 24, 2019.