Booksmart Breathes Warmth and Life into a Tired Genre

Awkward white people strutting to a hip hop song is not funny. It’s a lazy joke, worn thin by ad execs and youth group leaders across the country. And it’s a joke that Booksmart goes to again and again.

In fact, a lot of Booksmart has already been done to death, from its plot structure (“High school seniors on a quest to the ultimate party”) to its visual style (music video-esque close-ups and Dutch angles) to many of its gags (example: squares take drugs and freak out).

So despite all of that, why does first-time director Olivia Wilde’s movie feel so fresh and humane?

A lot of the credit goes to the movie’s stars: Kaitlyn Dever (Justified) as introverted liberal Amy and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) as her outgoing control-freak best friend Molly. Shocked to learn that their hard partying classmates earned the same Ivy League admissions that they secured through four years of responsible study, Amy and Molly decide to make up for lost time by going to a blow-out party and hooking up with their respective crushes.

You’ve seen that before, I know, but not like this. Dever and Feldstein bring genuine depth and warmth to their characters. Not only does the duo have plenty of classic odd-couple chemistry, with Molly pushing Amy out of her comfort zone and Amy forcing Molly to be sensible, but they behave like real people, even in over-the-top sex comedy scenarios. When the pornography Molly coerces Amy into watching gets played over the speakers of the car driven by their principle (Jason Sudeikis), we laugh at the joke because its a funny bit of cringe comedy, but we also fully empathize with the girls’ embarrassment and want them to continue to grow and learn from it. No matter how often Booksmart turns to gross out gags — including a hook up that begins with one of the girls touching the wrong part of her partner’s anatomy and ends with vomit — Wilde never treats Amy and Molly like buffoons. Instead, it respects them as actual humans in a little over the heads and trying to figure things out

There’s a genuine affection in the script by Susana Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman, an affection that caries right through to the audience. We might laugh at Amy and Molly’s pratfalls, but only because we empathize with the difficulties of late adolescence.

Well, with Amy and Molly, anyway. Too many of Booksmart‘s side characters feel one dimensional and stereotypical. The other high schoolers come off as Breakfast Club types, — the stoner, the handsome doofus, the nympho, the preening drama queens, the hot chick, etc. Wilde and her writers do try to develop these characters, and it works in the case of Skyler Gisando’s needy rich kid and Billie Lourd’s teleporting weirdo. But the others remain one-note bits until their arcs pick up in a third act that’s already over-stuffed with incident.

On the other end, the movie seems to take a hands off with the adult characters, to let the actors improvise their parts. While it works in the case of Mike O’Brien’s sketchy pizza guy, most of the others — even involving veteran comedians like Sudeikis, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, and Lisa Kudrow — fall flat and aimless.

Still, you can’t help but admire the film for respecting its characters enough to try to make them sympathetic and three-dimensional, even if it doesn’t always work. Because it often does work, especially with such fantastic performances by Dever and Feldstein.

They can’t make an awkward white kid rap sequence funny, but they can make it real and human and that’s even more impressive.

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