High school kind of sucks—four years of trying to figure out who you are, learn everything you can, all the while being told you’re too young to really know anything. Additionally, your body is a freakish collection of colliding hormones and throbbing impulses that make rational thought almost impossible. It’s no wonder the best teenage movies are the ones that deal with teenage angst by giving us an slightly authentic look at the living hell that is high school.
I say “slightly” because good high-school movies tend to favor the kind of convenient conclusions that elude most of us in real life. Many of my Saturday detentions didn’t end up with me getting high and dancing terribly in the library like “The Breakfast Club.” The fat kid didn’t hang out with someone as hot and cool as Emma Stone like the end of “Superbad.” And I doubt many ladies still would have been making out with Freddie Prinze Jr. after they discovered he was using them to win a bet in “She’s All That.”
Much the same, “Booksmart” lives in this high-school fantasy realm. Its main characters are able to deal with adversity, wind up in a number of wacky situations, and end up achieving their unrealistic goals in a relatively short span of time. “Booksmart” reminded me of one of my favorite teenage comedies, “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The underrated gem chronicles the misadventures of a bunch of different kids during the biggest rager, as they celebrate graduation and moving on with their lives.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is an overacheiver who has spent her high-school career focusing on grades and extracurricular activities. Her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is an equally studious but less confident cohort who has taken this four-year journey with Molly. They have been working under the theory that high school is a cultural and educational wasteland, where the vast majority of their peers are more concerned with partying than getting into a great college and setting themselves up for success. Molly is going to Yale and Amy is heading to Columbia. They think they’ve got it all figured out—until Molly realizes a lot of other students in her class got into equally prestigious schools. And they achieved a balance between having fun in high school and academics that she considered to be impossible.
Now, on the eve of graduation, Molly has her entire worldview drop-kicked. She and Amy have one night left to cut loose, after spending their carefree years obsessed with academia. So they party hardy and show their classmates they’re not squares. The setup is fairly common: high schoolers looking to party their way into social acceptance. It’s the stellar execution from director Olivia Wilde and wonderful performances from Feldstein and Dever that helps elevate “Booksmart” into something entertaining and ultimately worthwhile.
There’s also a great deal of care and attention paid to the supporting cast of high schoolers—all of whom deliver a wide range of diverse personalities and far from a one-dimensional cliché. There are some very likable characters in here fighting the a whole lot of high-school party movie clichés. There’s a super-nerdy nice guy who tries too hard to be liked; the popular kid who everyone assumes is a self-obsessed asshole, only to reveal he may have layers; and, of course, the girls want to hook up so we have typical high-school romance subplot, which goes to some interesting, albeit predictable, places.
There’s very little separating “Booksmart” from “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “American Pie” or “Superbad.” It is nice to see the story with female leads; Molly and Amy are such likable characters, so audiences still care about what happens to them in spite of a series of obstacles that feel cribbed from every teen party comedy ever conceived. “Booksmart” doesn’t bring anything new to the genre, but it’s a fine addition that provides a few laughs, a few tears and enough random moments to be worthy of a watch.