Review: Raucous teen comedy 'Booksmart' graduates with honors

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star in this spirited romp, a 'Clueless' for the Gen-Z set

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in "Booksmart."

Hilarious and heartfelt, "Booksmart" is the long-overdue female "Superbad" the world needs right now. 

This raucous teen comedy is smart and fresh and immediately enters the canon of great high school films that are both universal and unmistakably of-their-era. In the '90s there was "Clueless," the '00s gave us "Mean Girls" and here, at the tail end of whatever we're calling this decade, we have "Booksmart."   

"Booksmart" has an authenticity that is both rooted in the timeless teenage experience — the awkward, exciting, vulnerable time in your life when you know both everything and nothing at all — and specific to today's Gen-Z set. It plays equally to those going through it now and to those who've already been through the teenage rigmarole.

Credit and kudos are deserved by director Olivia Wilde, making her promising feature film debut, and screenwriter Katie Silberman, who came on after previous versions of the script were penned by Susanna Fogel and the team of Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins.

And they're especially deserved by stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, the fierce, funny duo around whom the story is built. From the film's opening, when they perform a curbside dance off before heading to school in the morning, they create an impenetrable force field of friendship around the film. We're only allowed in because they invite us. 

Feldstein, in her first major role since playing "Lady Bird's" best friend, is Molly and Dever ("Short Term 12," "Men, Women & Children"), is Amy. They're seniors at a Los Angeles-area high school who have dedicated their teenage years to academics in order to set themselves up post-graduation — Molly is headed to Yale, Amy to Columbia — and for that, they've sacrificed their social lives. 

But when Molly overhears a group of classmates discussing their own post-high school plans, and finds these peers she regards as burnouts are also headed to prestigious universities, she realizes the years she and Amy wasted hitting the books. And now the clock is ticking on their chance to live the fun high school life they never had. 

So like so many teenage romps, "Booksmart" comes down to one epic night of partying, where drugs are ingested, crushes are revealed and dreams are realized, or dashed. (That "Superbad" comes to mind is no coincidence; Feldstein is "Superbad" star Jonah Hill's sister.) 

Wilde gives the film a vivacious energy that is matched by her two leads; an argument between the pair is shot with a dizzying, swirling camera that signifies their worlds spinning out of control. The film is honest in its depiction of teenage feelings and the genuine love between Molly and Amy, two proud feminists who worship RBG and say "Malala" to each other as a mutual term of endearment. 

"Booksmart" is genuine enough that it doesn't sacrifice its emotional honesty for the gratification of its characters; it would feel disingenuous if everyone's arcs were wrapped up neatly, and "Booksmart" is too smart for that. That it closes on a perfect emotional note shouldn't be at all surprising. All along, "Booksmart" proves it's at the head of the class. 



Rated R: for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking - all involving teens

Running time: 105 minutes