SXSW Review: Good Girls Make Their Own Kind of Fun in ‘Booksmart’

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SXSW Film Festival: Olivia Wilde brought her directorial debut, “Booksmart,” to SXSW and the crowds rejoiced. After decades of raunchy teen comedies focused on boys getting laid and or high, Wilde tells the tale from the perspective of two very good teenage girls.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are Molly and Amy, two lifelong best friends about to embark on separate journeys after their high school graduation. Molly is the class valedictorian and bound for Yale. Amy is the salutatorian, heading off for volunteer work in Botswana before starting at Columbia in the fall. They are friends with the librarians and the teachers, but not with the less motivated students in their graduating class. Together they have eschewed parties and drinking and all the things their classmates deem fun.

But everything changes when Molly learns she and Amy have misjudged their fellow students. While the two were busy spending their Friday nights at the library, everyone else was having a good time and still making it into top schools. Determined not to waste their entire high school experience, they decide to spend their last night before graduation at the hottest party in town. And, of course, this leads to a series of increasingly distressing and also hilarious events.

In 2017, Beanie Feldstein grabbed the hearts of film fans as Saoirse Ronan’s loyal bestie, Julie, in “Lady Bird.” Two years later, she is sharing the leading role as one half of a hilarious duo. Molly is the kind of girl who knows what she wants, makes all the decisions, and has a road map for her entire life. Feldstein knows when to play Molly as charming and cute, and when she crosses over into domineering and a little bit annoying. It’s a balancing act and she does it perfectly. She is very funny, with an excellent sense for both great dialogue and physical comedy.

The same can also be said for Kaitlyn Dever, whose film credits have mostly led her into dramatic roles. She developed her comedy skills on the set of “Last Man Standing,” and brings a similar sense of character to “Booksmart.” Her Amy is out and proud, even though she has never kissed a girl, and has spent the last two years pining over a blonde pixie skateboard chick named Ryan. Amy is as smart and introverted as Molly, but spends much of the time following her friend, rarely making any decisions for herself. She wears that tension and frustration in her eyes, and we get the sense she has a deep well of emotions that could burst at any moment. Dever is every bit as interesting to watch when she’s sharing scenes with Feldstein as when she commands the screen on her own.

Olivia Wilde took a risk on her first time out as a director. With infamous films as “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Risky Business,” and “American Pie,” the raunchy teen comedy has been, like everything else in Hollywood, male dominated. Wilde’s take is like a much more realistic version of “Superbad,” where even the most ridiculous and far-fetched elements of the story could definitely still happen. Which doesn’t sacrifice the humor at all. In fact, in some ways, that makes it more accessible.

Wilde’s eye for detail and her focus on character first mark “Booksmart” as a must-see comedy for teenagers. Every element, including sex positive messages as well as simply the reminder not to judge others, is full of important life lessons that are not weighted down by unnecessary plot details.

The script includes the contributions of Katie Silberman, Sarah Haskins, Emily Halpern, and Susanna Fogel. This is a film that could only have worked so well if it was written and directed by women. Women who know how nerdy girls think, feel, and act. Who also understand the minds of girls who don’t take themselves so seriously. And who know that even hormonal, annoying teenage boys have deeper thoughts brewing beneath the surface. At least sometimes.

The supporting cast is deep with familiar and new faces. Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow play Amy’s trying-to-be-supportive parents. Jason Sudeikis is the high school principal who probably used to care about his students before the reality of bad teacher salaries and poor teenage attitudes turned him into a jaded shell of his former self. Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Eduardo Franco, and Skyler Gisondo are some of the hilarious and surprising classmates that add to Molly and Amy’s wild night.

“Booksmart” is both an antidote to a male-dominated genre, and a welcome addition to the collection. Smart, funny, and perfect to watch with your best friends. If this is Olivia Wilde’s first effort behind the camera, we can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

“Booksmart” is distributed by Annapurna and will be in theaters May 24.

GRADE: (★★★½)

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