Movie Review: “Booksmart” Updates John Hughes for the Era of Corrupt Meritocracy

Movie Review: “Booksmart” Updates John Hughes for the Era of Corrupt Meritocracy

The wicked twist that fuels the plot of Booksmart is also one of its most plausible. Having spent high school climbing the ladder of the meritocracy — doing their homework, pursuing academic extracurriculars, leading school government — Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) discover that they got into their dream elite colleges. So, however, did all their privileged peers.

Realizing they could have been slamming microbrews for four years and still be headed for Yale, the two BFFs decide to take the eve of graduation as their last opportunity to party. It’s a classic teen-movie twist with a next-level premise, like much of what ensues in Olivia Wilde’s fun directorial debut.

Booksmart is one of those films that casts right and holds on tight, counting on the actors’ chemistry and charisma to pull it through any rough spots. It’s a strategy that worked for Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and Pulp Fiction, and it works for Wilde, who knows that from the little dance-off with which Molly and Amy greet each other, we’ll be on their side.

It’s a cliche to invoke the name of John Hughes in any discussion of high school movies, but the reason he became iconic is that movies like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles balanced silly antics and high-concept plots with characters you could believe, and root for. If The Breakfast Club traded in stereotypes, it was because its characters did; they were ready to break out of the molds they’d been cast in.

Sharply written by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman, Booksmart takes that essential formula and updates it for the cusp of the 2020s. Films like Lady Bird and Thirteen have poignantly probed the comedy and tragedy of American girlhood, and Love, Simon showed (no surprise by now) that a gay teen love story could win legions of devoted viewers.

So the fact that Amy is gay, and that the predictably awkward party make-out scene is a same-sex hookup, is just part of the road map for a convoluted story that involves its heroines with skewed archetypes like the rich but lonely boy who iconifies himself to mask his insecurities (Skyler Gisondo), the principal who moonlights as a Lyft driver (Jason Sudeikis), and the omnipresent party girl with a reputation for providing “roadside assistance” to her male classmates (Billie Lourd).

Feldstein, a Lady Bird actor whose brother happens to be Jonah Hill, is getting buzz as the movie’s potential breakout star, and for good reason: she glories in this leading role, and Wilde wisely refrains from pushing either of her stars into histrionics. These are characters for viewers to identify with, and to react alongside with. Dever is perfectly plausible as the dry sidekick who ultimately rebels at playing second banana to Feldstein’s class president.

If the climax of Booksmart is contrived…well, so what? You didn’t come for raw realism, you went for a relatable spoof of L.A. teen life in the post-Obama era. (The former First Family remains a touchstone for Molly and Amy, who find the White House’s current occupants beyond irrelevant.) What better for a time when nothing makes sense than a frothy but heartfelt romp about the stage of life when nothing ever makes sense?

Jay Gabler

Photo: Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures