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Arts & Culture

Actress Olivia Wilde Scores With Directorial Debut 'Booksmart'

Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are straight-A students who decide to party the night before graduation.
Annapurna Pictures
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are straight-A students who decide to party the night before graduation.

Teen comedy looks to overachieving girls

Companion viewing

"Clueless" (1995)

"The Virgin Suicides" (1999)

"Ladybird" (2017)

Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature film directing debut with “Booksmart.” It’s a comedy about two overachieving high school girls who decide to close their books and party the night before graduation.

Hollywood tends to favor boys over girls for coming-of-age films, so right off the bat, “Booksmart” feels just a little fresher than the average teen comedy with its focus on female characters. With more women directors and writers telling stories, those numbers are changing.

Actress Olivia Wilde Scores With Directorial Debut ‘Booksmart’
By Reporter Beth Accomando Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature film directing debut with “Booksmart.” It’s a comedy about two overachieving high school girls who decide to close their books and party the night before graduation. You can hear this story and other local news every morning by subscribing to San Diego News Matters, KPBS’ daily news podcast. Subscribe via iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcatcher.

“Booksmart” centers on Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, who can also be seen in FX's "What We Do in the Shadows"), a pair of straight-A high school best friends who think they’re cool for being smart. They are proud of having devoted their high school careers to studying and acing tests so they can get into the best schools. But on the day before graduation, Molly makes a shocking discovery: some of those kids who partied all through high school and seemed to not care are also going to colleges like Yale. Now Molly has an uncontrollable urge to party and break rules. But her BFF Amy is not convinced that’s a good idea.

Amy asks, “Name one person whose life was so much better because they broke a couple of rules?” To which Molly replies, “Picasso.” When prompted to give better examples with people who broke real rules and not just “art” rules, Molly has a couple of women to cite: Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony. Amy cannot argue with that so the two head off on an adventure.

What’s so enjoyable about “Booksmart” is that the humor springs from character rather than just from outrageous situations. Molly, the champion high school debater, wins Amy over with a persuasive argument fitting to who she is. And when the girls head out to party, they end up on the curb suddenly realizing that they have never socialized with these popular kids and have no idea where Nick’s grad party is. Again it’s funny because it stems from who these girls are.

It’s also great to have a smartly written script with strong female characters from the team of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman.

Director Olivia Wilde on the set of "Booksmart" with actress Kaitlyn Dever who plays Amy.
Annapurna Pictures
Director Olivia Wilde on the set of "Booksmart" with actress Kaitlyn Dever who plays Amy.

Director Olivia Wilde had this statement in the press materials: “When you’re in it, high school feels like life or death. I wanted to approach this film the same way a director would approach a high-octane action movie. I wanted it to feel like a buddy cop movie, where it's about partners who have each other's backs no matter what. They can be very different people who can support each other, complete each other, but within a high-stakes environment. We took inspiration from ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ ‘Training Day’ and ‘Lethal Weapon.’ Basically, ‘Booksmart’ is a relationship movie, set in a high school environment that reflects just how high the stakes truly are during that period of our lives.”

The result is a film that embraces differences and celebrates friendship. As with the recent “Spider-Man” films, “Booksmart” gives us a high school environment that seems to reflect the real world in terms of ethnic, gender and sexual orientation, but doesn’t make an issue of it. The school just has gays, lesbians, black, whites and Asians because that’s what schools look like. The film begins with certain stereotypes, but then gives each character a little bit of backstory to shed some light on who they really are, so we see them from a more well-rounded perspective. By the end of the film, Molly and Amy see past the stereotypes they held of their classmates and their classmates see them in new ways too.

Wilde makes an impressive directing debut. She gets engaging performances from her entire cast and displays an occasional flair for stylish visuals, as in an underwater pool sequence that leads Amy to some painful realizations.

“Booksmart” is a funny, smart and sweet-natured comedy. I grade it a B plus.