“BOOKSMART” is the full-feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde that had its premier at this month’s SXSW film festival. Starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, this story follows two high school friends that have spent their last four years hitting the books while many others were going to parties and seemingly working much less. Realizing they may have missed out on the fun the rest of their peers have experienced, the two of them try to catch up by having one wild and memorable night on the eve of graduation to catch up for lost time.
From what the trailers showed this appeared to be a rather formulaic high school comedy with some emotional undertones. It did look like it had some potential though, and despite being many years out of high school I was interested in what the cast could deliver and more so, what Olivia Wilde could do behind the camera. Much to my delight, this film delivered more than a simple teenage story of growth into the adult world. It was a heartwarming coming-of-age story, but it also blended in a charming sense-of-humor, with sincere emotional arcs, and a great musical score that routinely pumped even more energy into the atmosphere of the narrative.
It was also a female buddy comedy that thrived from the performances of Dever and Feldstein. The script was well-written. But it was the delivery of the material and the chemistry between these actresses that created genuine characters I felt were impossible not to connect with. They captured pure friendship with ease, and it resulted in some effective laughs that had me thinking back to my high school days. I was able to see myself in these characters within minutes. Their routine was different than the one my best friend and I had. The music may have been different as well, but the dynamic we had was our own, much like it was for these two girls which had me completely invested.
The script wove a solid arc for not only both characters individually, but it also showed a focus on the growth of their friendship as well which had me completely engaged in where the story would take them as friends. The film may have a collection of scenes that felt familiar to others in the genre, yet with Dever and Feldstein creating extremely likable characters it was still intriguing to see them progress through them regardless. The writing was able to hit the emotional beats with near perfect timing. When it needed to be light and comical the dialogue and situations delivered. When it wanted to be serious and more dramatic the turn felt natural as the story-arcs for various characters and relationships took over.
It was able to feel comfortable in a realistically crass high school setting. There are some crude situations and jokes made that do earn the R-rating, however they never felt placed in to simply be raunchy. Things will get vulgar with stories centering on teenagers because at that age we often were. Sex, parties, drugs, and alcohol are all things many teenagers are exposed to and this story captured many of those elements with a realistic approach that kept it from simply feeling like shock-value humor. It complemented that comedic tone by exploring other social elements that teens must go through which gave everything much more heart.
Olivia Wilde’s direction was skillful. It was clear she understood the tone and intention of the story. She maneuvered the characters to capture the right emotion and level of intensity during many scenes. She let the performances shine by holding the frame of the shot for longer periods during the more emotionally driven scenes. But as the night progresses and the craziness elevates, I felt Wilde infused it with a crisp artistic style. It was subtle, but what she accomplished behind the lens was able to blend smoothly with the tone of the story. When the narrative was calm the camera techniques felt more simplistic. Then as drugs and alcohol make their way into the action, I felt Wilde was able to switch the technique and angles up with a skilled eye to create her vision.
Another strong positive was the supporting cast. There were a variety of side characters throughout the story-line to keep things feeling fresh in terms of personality. Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Forte all provide some charm in small doses. With a collection of younger ones as well as Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, and Noah Gavin all bring life to some otherwise routine character types that all provided frequent laughs. Everything in this movie just felt right. Nothing took over the focus being on these two friends and the other elements all felt like perfect side dishes. It’s heartwarming without feeling sappy, and it was because nothing felt overly forced.
Hindrances in this one would be minor. Like I said, I haven’t been in high school for many years so I couldn’t tell you how unrealistic some of the character-types were. But I think they worked for the needs of the story. It does follow some genre tropes, and the progression of the plot-line is one you can forecast. Some of the humor does not hit with the intended impact either but I don’t think any comedy is going to deliver a perfect string of laughs. In this instance I felt much more of the humor worked than what didn’t. So, when paired with the more dramatic elements of the story the result was an endearing coming-of-age story with two lead characters that felt real. Which will make this movie appeal to a range of demographics.