Cinematic Releases: Booksmart (2019) - Reviewed

Coming-of-age films about seniors nearing high school graduation aren’t anything new.  From American Graffiti to Can’t Hardly Wait, audiences have seen a wide range of films that explore this pivotal time in a teenager’s life.  In recent years, however, attempts to portray the modern teenage experience in a meaningful way have felt largely uninspired.  Luckily for us, Booksmart fills this void, and does so in a brilliantly fresh way.

One could easily dismiss the plot as being a basic run-of-the-mill party film.  Two overachieving young ladies who have spent every waking moment of high school studying to get into a good college have an epiphany:  the kids they deemed losers are getting into the same schools as them, except they’ve had more fun along the way.  Determined to have at least one “hoorah” before venturing into the next chapter of their lives, they vow to embark upon an adventure to live it up the night before graduation.   

It’s as simple as that, but somehow so much more.  What stands out most about Booksmart is its exceptionally well-rounded characters.  Every person we encounter along the way is likable in one way or another, whether it be an overly concerned pizza delivery man to a drama club classmate who is always hilariously “extra.”  We always have a sense for everyone’s backstory with very little exposition, and it’s a testament to how efficient the screenplay is.  More interesting yet is the fact that most of the students circumvent the classic high school stereotypes.  We don’t have Breakfast Club-esque jocks and nerds in this world, and even when one teeters on being the “popular girl,” for example, the film intentionally makes us do a double-take with her.

This strong characterization would not be possible without the film’s undeniably memorable cast.  Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein are charismatic as the two leads, and their supporting cast is equally strong.  Heavy hitters like Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow play small yet endearing characters, and Billie Lourd absolutely shines as Gigi:  a hilarious “wild card” of a girl that seems omnipresent throughout the evening this film takes place.  More impressive yet is how natural the entire teenage cast feels.  This is perhaps one of the best ensembles for a high school film in over a decade, mainly because the students speak and behave like actual teenagers and feel multidimensional.  Kudos to Olivia Wilde in her feature-length directorial debut; she has an eye for subtlety that brought out the best in these young actors. 

Booksmart is an Adam McKay and Will Ferrell-produced endeavor, and while it’s more estrogen-infused than their usual fare, fans of theirs shouldn’t be disappointed.  With its clever dialogue, killer soundtrack, and snappy editing, the film is consistently funny and fast-paced enough to rival some of their best films, and it makes perfect sense why they are backing this project.  It delves into absurd and downright insane terrain enough to make it a touch abstract, yet always becomes grounded again fast enough to not lose its humanity completely.  In many ways, this is one of the more mature films they’ve produced, but in no way is it any less interesting than their other projects.

If you’re not bothered by irreverent humor or watching teenagers flounder their way through a vast slew of “adult” situations, then check out Booksmart.  It’s laugh-out-loud funny with never a dull moment, yet still manages to have some heart amidst all the debauchery.  Millennials and Gen X-ers alike will be able to find something to appreciate about this film, and it serves as a perfect wake-up call to anyone riddled with responsibilities to never forget how to let loose and have fun every once in a while. 

--Andrea Riley