Actor Olivia Wilde directs and has a striking debut with “Booksmart” a film that is a laser-pointed tribute to Judd Apatow and John Hughes’ films in the tradition of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
The film follows two intellectual high school seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) as they face their final school day. Molly has a plan: she wants Amy to party with her before graduation and she will not take no for an answer.
Amy reluctantly consents. The inseparable friends go on a quixotic quest for the perfect party in the hopes of experiencing all of the taboo things that they both missed out on as exemplary students. What follows is a picaresque journey that never stops. Each character is as quirky and colorful as the preceding one.
Molly and Amy have known each other since they were kids and both Feldstein and Dever have a magnetic chemistry that borders on the poignant. One believes them wholeheartedly and the pairing is perfect.
Though the plot is most definitely in the style of “Superbad” or the aforementioned Ferris Bueller, the spirit and emotion is unique to Wilde who gives these rounded characters substance and the freedom to become unfailingly empathetic, without artifice.
The scene depicting Molly and Amy talking alone about a cherished stuffed panda (frequently used for a secret purpose) is as funny as anything by Hughes or Apatow, only more so because it is understated, not played for heavy laughs. Many characters have the flavor of an 80s comedy from the overbearing and insecure Jared (Skyler Gisondo) to the obsequious and overly flattering Principal Brown (Jason Sudeikis). Such types will be familiar to any 80s movie fan, yet it is the heart and the quirk that sets this film somewhat apart, but also in good company with that nostalgic history. Add to the mix Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Molly’s eager to please yet overly hesitant parents and you have a hit.
Yes, there are the usual plot points here: frenzied car rides, eccentric teens and adults who don’t want to be labeled bores, but everything that happens unfolds with such natural ease that all events feel as they should, spontaneous heartfelt surprises that are seen for the first time.
Feldstein and Dever are flawless precisely because unlike figures in an Apatow comedy, not one thing about Molly or Amy is thrown for cheap chortles or overt ridicule. They are absolutely human.
Like all lasting comedy, the humor is organic, originating from within.
Above all, this vivacious and carbonated film is about friendship. Here are two young women without demeaning pratfalls, sophomoric gross-outs, imbecilic interludes or elementary silliness. The narrative is vivid, lasting and profoundly uncynical.
Wilde teases the expectation of the usual gross-out scenes throughout the film, yet by stripping such “bathroom humor” of its base nature, Director Wilde turns these moments into pathos and makes something new. Far richer and more thoughtful than “Bridesmaids” or “The Hangover” franchise, “Booksmart” is refreshingly simple, warm-hearted and wonderful.
Write Ian at firstname.lastname@example.org