It saddens me that on a Memorial Day weekend when either Disney's decidedly average live-action remake of Aladdin or the even more average low-budget indie horror Brightburn is likely to take home the box-office crown that a vastly superior film, and easily one of the best films to date of 2019, is likely to be not much more than a cinematic afterthought.
The feature film directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart is far and away the best film to open in wide release this holiday weekend and easily one of the best films to arrive in theaters thus far in 2019.
It's difficult to describe just how sublime of a cinematic experience that Booksmart is, but I'll join a chorus of film journalists nationwide in boldly proclaiming it to be a nearly perfect coming-of-age story and, without a doubt, a film that truly celebrates the young women it portrays and the generation, our current one, in which it is set.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) is your classic high school over-achiever. a soon-to-be valedictorian on her way to Yale who's spent her high school years avoiding the stereotypical high school scene in favor of the promising future that an Ivy League education will afford her. She's joined in this pursuit by Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who came out as a lesbian in the 10th grade, at least to Molly, but who still hasn't kissed a girl and whose post-high school plans include a summer in Botswana teaching young women to make their own tampons.
In other words, Molly and Amy are nerds. They're adorable nerds, but they're nerds.
When Molly stumbles into the knowledge that several of her less inspired and motivated classmates, including airhead jock and party animal Nick(Mason Gooding), managed to party away their high school days and are stilll headed to similarly prestigious colleges, she becomes determined to spend her last night of high school making up for all that lost time with, of course, Amy by her side.
There's an almost cosmic natural chemistry between Feldstein and Dever. It's the kind of comfortable, everyday intimacy that is seldom captured on the big screen with any believability. Here, however, it feels natural and authentic and never less than honest no matter completely and utterly insane their antics become.
They become pretty insane.
Wilde has crafted a film that is one of the funniest, smartest, most insightful, and most endearing motion pictures to come out in quite some time. It's a high school world where co-ed bathrooms exist and diversity, whether that be ethnicity, economics, sexual orientation or whatever, is embraced without a wink of the eye or a need to make it part of the story. Molly and Amy's high school experience is both hilarious and touching, an experience where stereotypes are quickly brought to the forefront then just as quickly proven wrong.
Feldstein first really grabbed our attention as the best friend in the acclaimed Lady Bird, a solid first glimpse at her talent but hardly a chance to really see the actress shine. In Booksmart, she's in nearly every scene and she makes the most of all of them. Feldstein's Molly is the bolder and the more assertive of the best friends, a young woman who awakens to self-empowerment tapes but who is also infused by Feldstein with just the right dose of vulnerability and humanity and absolutely hilarious facial expressions. The quieter of the two, Dever's Amy is an absolute joy, a befuddled wannabe romantic who somewhat reminded me of Wendy Makkena's Sister Mary Robert from the Sister Act films.
Yeah, I know. That's kind of weird.
But, seriously. Dever's absolute gold here as a shy girl with religious, doting parents (Lisa Kudrow and who are trying to accept their daughter even though they're not quite sure what they're accepting. Amy is relentlessly shy, fiercely protective of Molly, socially dutiful, and always responsive whenever Molly shouts out their code word of "Malala!," a sign that the other needs help and saying no is not an option for these two.
While the vast majority of Booksmart is centered around Molly and Amy, Wilde has them surrounded by an absolutely delightful and entertaining ensemble cast. There's no question, however, that Billie Lourd's Gigi steals the show. Lourd, who may finally stop being known only as Carrie Fisher's daughter, is rambunctiously over-the-top as a soft-hearted wild child who somehow manages to show up at every part and gives everyone the wrong impression of who she really is and what she's really about. Lourd turns the film's easiest caricature into something much more, a young woman we both identify with and care about.
Lensing by Jason McCormick bathes Booksmart in a sort of kaleidoscopic wonderland of colors never more beautifully realized than in one sequence involving Amy's first pangs of attraction and subsequent tingling in which the entire scene is immersed in the sort of warm glow that instantly feels familiar and fantastic. It's a beautifully realized scene and indicative of McCormick's top notch work throughout the film. Dan Nakamura, as Dan the Automator, contributes the original music and gives the film heart and humanity and humor throughout. Kudos must also be given for Jamie Gross' crisp, breezy editorial work that makes everything flow for maximum effect.
There's not a weak link to be found among the supporting players, with Eduardo Franco and Austin Crute also among the film's shining stars. While Lisa Kudrow and and Jason Sudeikis are good to see here, their familiar presence is woefully under-utilized to the point of distraction. I could have done without the stereotypical scene of hot, feminist teacher, in this case Ms Fine (Jessica Williams), shagging the 20-year-old soon to be grad, a creepier than it needed scene with a tone that doesn't match the rest of the film.
Minor storyline quibbles aside, the quartet of the writers involved with the film, all up-and-coming female voices in Hollywood including Emily Halpern (Trophy Wife), Sarah Haskins (Celeste and Jesse Forever), Katie Silberman (Isn't It Romantic?), and Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), have crafted a rare film that feels like it was written from and for the genuine female voice whether talking honestly about masturbation or simply avoiding the usual topics that Hollywood seems convinced are the only things women think about.
Booksmart is, quite simply, one of 2019's most entertaining and enjoyable cinematic experiences and proof positive that Olivia Wilde is a tour-de-force of filmmaking and a voice we can look forward to hearing from again and again. While I don't hold out high hopes that the film can topple the likes of Aladdin or Brightburn this Memorial Day weekend, one can only hope it sticks around in theaters for quite a while and rewards indie distributor Annapurna's warranted faith in the project.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic