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Booksmart

By: Jolie Featherstone

When a movie opens with an inspirational, expletive-filled meditation guide voiced by Maya Rudolph, you know you’ve chosen the right movie.

Booksmart is a refreshing new entry in the “last days of high school” coming-of-age film tradition.  Films of this ilk often connect on a uniquely emotional level for viewers.  Booksmart is sure to resonate with legions of people who, up to now, have not seen their stories reflected, let alone centred, in this genre.

Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein in a star-turning role) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever in a quieter but equally nuanced performance) are two ride-or-die, thick-as-thieves best friends facing the penultimate day of their high school lives.  Tomorrow is graduation;  the day both Molly and Amy have worked tirelessly towards.  After four years of endless studying, managing extracurricular groups, and beefing up their university applications, Molly is bound for Yale and Amy is bound for Columbia (following a summer internship in Botswana, natch).  They are known as two of the highest achievers in their school.  In addition to their exacting Ivy League-or-Bust regimen, they are ardent feminists (instead of Tiger Beat posters of the latest heartthrob, photos of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg grace the walls of Molly’s bedroom) who plan to smash glass ceilings after graduation.

When they realize that the slacker kids they frequently disparage are bound for the same calibre of schools as they are, they’re thrown into an existential crisis.  They set out to go to the biggest party of the year in order to fully experience high school and to set the record straight with their peers, leading them on a night of misadventures that they never could have expected.

In a remarkably assured and impressive feature film directorial debut by actor Olivia Wilde, Booksmart leads us through the highs and lows unique to the teenage years.  Wilde takes us on a wild ride through the perspective of two Teacher’s Pet – type students.  She does so with love, compassion, and a little sprinkling of self-aware fun.  All of these elements ladder up to a delicious recipe for a new fan favourite.

The film moves at a fast clip, yet it still feels substantial.  The comedic timing is perfect.  The film reaches feverish highs, yet the quips walk on a razor’s edge without so much as wavering.  This is courtesy of the four-person-strong writing team consisting of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman.  Enough praise cannot be expressed for Feldstein and Dever’s performances.  Feldstein lights up the entire screen.  She has the type of classic star power and presence we don’t see too often lately.  Dever is an excellent straight woman to Feldstein’s brazen, Type-A Molly.  Dever’s performance is understated and nuanced.  The chemistry and care between the two feels wholly real throughout the film.  You can see it acutely during the film’s emotional climax.

Booksmart intentionally strives to ensure that no character is made into a complete caricature.  The film earnestly attempts to be inclusive, though it does falter in this regard.  The characterizations of Alan and George (played by Austin Crute and Noah Galvin) veer into a stereotypical territory, though both actors shine despite the material.  Also, the character of Miss Fine (played by the always hilarious Jessica Williams) is the kind of teacher we all wish for, until she plunges into some problematic behaviour towards the end of the film.  However, Booksmart does a good job of humbling its characters (and, in turn, the viewer).  The film reminds us that confidently subscribing to the belief that our perspective is the only correct one is false and short-sighted.  The film reminds us of this by including heroes that make mistakes and would-be “villains” that show vulnerability.  The film treats each character with the same percentages of love and deprecation.

Visually, Booksmart dazzles the eye with an almost liquid use of colour and lighting.  The blocking and framing of the emotional climax are ambitious and well-handled.  It will be interesting to see if Wilde continues to play with this visual style in future.

Booksmart is a film that folks have (knowingly or unknowingly) been waiting for.  It is genuine, sincere, and centres young women within a genre that so often stereotypes them or relegates them to holding up the stories of men.  The film achieves this without ever sacrificing comedy.  Booksmart opened the door of this beloved genre a little further.  I am excited to see what new stories will come to cinemas as a result.

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