By sophomore year in high school, my best friend and I owned so many articles of clothing in common that we had to outfit plan so as to avoid a repeat of the unfortunate Triple Five Soul twinning moment of 2004. So it was with a cackle of gleeful recognition and a twinge of painful nostalgia that I watched protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) come face-to-face in matching party-ready navy blue boiler suits in Booksmart.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is an arresting piece of filmmaking. For one thing, it’s hilarious. Every scene is carefully crafted, honed for optimal impact. It’s been a while since I left a movie that exhilarated, feeling as high as Molly and Amy after having accidentally ingested strawberries dipped in hallucinogens. But there’s also something wholly original about her approach to the storied last night of high school. It doesn’t try to be the “female” version of anything, but nonetheless delivers a story that’s feminine, raunchy, silly, sweet, inclusive, and incredibly specific, all at once.
First and foremost, Booksmart is the story of high school best friends Molly and Amy. They’re as close as two girls who freely talk about their masturbation habits can be, but distinct in their personalities. Type-A Molly is valedictorian and student body president, the kind of person who corrects graffiti scrawled in a bathroom stall, and has a bedroom shrine to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama. Amy is a social justice crusader, taking a summer abroad to help make tampons for women in Botswana. One is intensely confident and fending off shameful lust for popular party boy Nick (Mason Gooding), the other shy and pining for the class skater girl, Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). Both have spent high school buried in their books, doing the absolute most to get into the college of their choice. And it’s finally paid off: Molly’s headed to Yale, and Amy to Columbia. Finally, they can leave those other losers behind to whatever bleak future is in store for them. Right?
Except, as Molly soon realises, the kids who partied and drank while she and Amy made fake IDs to get into the 24-hour college library — including nemesis Triple A (Molly Gordon, Feldstein’s IRL best friend), so nicknamed because she “gave roadside assistance to three senior guys last year” — also got into their dream schools. Devastated that she might be remembered as the girl who didn’t do it all, Molly convinces Amy that they have to attend a blowout party before graduation, kicking off a wild night of full of future fond memories, and hard truths.
Feldstein and Dever are both phenomenal, breathing life and complexity into these two characters from the get go. Their chemistry, the result of Wilde’s idea that they should live together during filming, is palpable. Still, it’s undeniably Feldstein’s movie. She captures that very particular brand of high-achieving type-A smart girl — who’s not exactly nerdy, in touch with pop culture but alienating in her unshakeable sense of superiority — with impeccably timed delivery and inspired facial expressions.
The supporting cast is equally as charming. Billie Lourd in particular, who plays Gigi, an eccentric rich girl with a penchant for faux-fur, leans into the worst stereotypes about Hollywood children to scream-worthy effect. And then there’s Noah Galvin as theater kid George, whose karaoke rendition of Alannis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” literally made me spasm with laughter.
What’s special about Booksmart is that even as it takes place in a 24-hour period, it feels like a celebration of a history that goes back far beyond that. The script by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Siberman (responsible for Netflix’s 2018 rom-com hit, Set It Up) drops passing mentions of shared experiences between the two girls and their peers, setting up a living, breathing high school organism that feels real, and relatable. The film accurately and emotionally portrays a bittersweet juncture that’s specific to the end of high school. Even as Molly and Amy are exhilarated about their future, they’re saying goodbye to their past, and in a way, to each other.
Wilde’s directorial choices are creative and refreshing: A scene told through the perspective of Molly and Amy as Barbies is subversive and funny without being obvious; in the film’s climax, which I won’t spoil, she lets the camera linger on reaction shots rather than focus on the person who’s speaking, enabling us to watch the words painfully sink in. Moreover, Amy’s sexuality is handled with the kind of care that still feels distinctive enough so as to deserve a shout-out. When we meet her, she’s been out as a lesbian for two years, and still hasn’t kissed a girl. It’s a coming-of-age arc as old as time — with a twist that feels all new.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a film helmed by an-all woman writing team and director would manage to so effectively capture the rare intimacy of the friendship between teenage girls. And yet, maybe because it’s still so rare, it’s absolutely stunning when done this right. As Feldstein told Refinery29 in a recent profile, “Olivia Wilde is a Fucking. Director.”
Booksmart is released in UK cinemas on May 31