If the raucous laughs and glowing reviews “Booksmart” received at its SXSW premiere this week are any indication, it would appear actress Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut will be a hit when Annapurna releases the film in May. The fresh, female-led twist on the R-rated high school comedy is anchored by star-making performances by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, who play best friends determined – after spending four years studying to get into good colleges – to party with their classmates the night before graduation.
For Feldstein, who had a breakout supporting role playing the best friend in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” the experience of finally being the lead was surreal.
“My whole life, not just in my professional career, but in community theater, I played the supporting role,” said Feldstein at a “Booksmart” panel with Dever and Wilde the day after the film’s SXSW premiere. “I grew up in musicals and if you looked like me and sounded like me, you were the character, you were never at the center of the story. So this was a really, really big deal for me.”
Wilde told the packed convention hall that she had zeroed in on casting Feldstein at least a year before production, recalling having told the actress’ older brother Jonah Hill that she had become “obsessed” with his sister and that she needed her to star in her first film.
“When [producer] Jess [Elbaum] and I talked about Beanie as Molly from the very, very beginning, we just knew, because another thing that I think is different about the comedy for the women in this movie is they aren’t funny because they are a mess,” said Wilde. “It’s not that we’re laughing because they’re just so messy and it’s hilarious to see just how messy they are. They are funny because of their intensity and what they’re saying and doing, it’s a different type of comedy for women that I think is really exciting.”
Feldstein agreed, “When you have two people who are the smart girls, then the ‘smart’ ceases to exist, they’re just women who are smart,” said Feldstein. ”That’s what I loved so much about the film, it uses the archetypes in order to break them down.”
Virtually every tweet and review following the “Booksmart” premiere made the comparison to the 2007 film “Superbad,” starring Hill. Feldstein said that her brother hadn’t yet seen “Booksmart,” but that she believed there is one key ingredient that connects the two films.
“My favorite thing about ‘Superbad’ is it values male friendship,” said Feldstein. “The jokes are incredible, but the revolution of that film is ‘the boop’ moment [referring to the scene below, where Hill and Michael Cera’s character express their love for each other]. The tender moment between – I haven’t seen it since I was 12 years old, but I remember that moment – those boys love each other so much and that, if anything, is what is taken in our film, is just celebrating friendship in a comedy.”
Wilde declared that between her role in “Lady Bird” and now “Booksmart,” Feldstein’s performances are making audiences value friendships in a new way. In terms of her onscreen relationship with Dever’s character, it was a product of the two actresses’ relationship off-screen.
“I think a thing we have also been talking about, and [Olivia] has mentioned it several times, you can’t really fake chemistry,” said Dever. “For me and Beanie, when we met, we fell in love. I remember the day we met – big hugs all the way around.”
Eventually Wilde, at the request of the young actresses, had production house the film’s two stars together. From the start of preproduction until the last day of shooting, Feldstein was Dever’s first-ever roommate and the two became inseparable.
“The better part of it is I got to do it with her [Dever],” said Feldstein. “The two of us were on this journey and whenever I was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m in every day, I’m in every scene, what’s happening here?’ I just looked at Kaitlyn and I felt comfortable.”