A film like “Booksmart” lives and dies by its two central performances. Beannie Feldstein (Lady Bird) and Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12), respectively, play Molly and Amy, two upcoming high school graduates that have built up their own hermit-like worldview together. It’s not like they are anything like the central character in Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade” who had to fend her miserable experience all by herself, no, Molly and Amy are two peas in a pod, they are the kind of inseperable friends that complete each other’s sentences and are content with hanging out in their rooms instead of going out and socializing with the rest of their classroom. And yet, they do have a rapport with the rest of their classmates, it’s very apparent in the classroom sequences where the cliches that may have once been apparent in John Hughes and teen movies from the ‘90s completely evaporate. There is no bully, there is no jock, there is no cool kid, the stereotypes are not there and that is incredibly refreshing to witness.
The movie, Wilde’s directorial debut, has a Yale-bound Molly finding out that most of her classmates, despite their apparent slacking in education over the years, have also been accepted to Ivy league schools like Stanford, Harvard and Georgetown. Uh-oh, suffice to say, Molly freaks, has all this countless bookworming been all for nothing? Has she missed out on the high-school “experience”? After all, the best example of rebellious behavior she and Amy could come up with was when they decided to get illegal IDs to, how badass of them, be able to use the local 24-hour college library. Molly, with the reluctance of Amy, decides to take matters into her own hands, they are going to party like it’s 1999, a one-night-only event, filled with potential memories they will cherish and remember forever. Of course, Wilde very much wanting her film to be like a female version of “Superbad,” makes sure things don’t go according to plan for her two leading ladies, whose goal is to show up to a party attended by their school crushes. Molly has an eye for Nick (Mason Gooding) a slacker that all the girls love and Amy wants to so badly get inside the dress, err pants shorts, of Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) a skateboard chickita that she perceives may, hopefully, be a lesbian, just like her. The problem is simple, because of their last-minute decision to attend the party, and none of their classmates answering their texts and calls, Molly and Amy don’t know the address of the party. Their attempts to find it leads them in various, sometimes hysterical, directions, including a morosely empty boathouse and a performance art shindig, in which they realize they accidentally gulped down acid strawberries, which leads to an imaginative trip sequence filmed in stop-motion animation.
Wilde, better known for her effervescent acting, hops on the director’s chair here and, if some of the stylized decisions can sometimes feel hit-and-miss, not to mention the tonal deficiencies, there’s a galvanizing incisiveness to her camera, as if energized by the screenplay and her lead sctresses immense investments to their roles — she shoots the film in a way that makes it almost impossible not to feel affection for these characters, not to be swept up by the high-leveled likability factor. However, the question does remain whether Wilde can have an impactful and long-lasting tenure as a filmmaker, especially in an industry severely lacking in them, but “Booksmart” is a good indicator of things to come for the 35-year-old actress.
And so, yes, Wilde’s after-hours journey is no doubt filled with the familiarity that comes in the tradition of final-night-of-high-school classics such as “Dazed and Confused,” “Superbad,” “American pie,” and “American Graffitti,” but if “Booksmart” can’t reach the same heights as those aforementioned movies it nevertheless compensates by tackling something all of those films clearly lacked: the female experience. The fact that this journey into the high school night has two X-chromosomed characters leading the way for us brings a freshly original and incisive point-of-view to the surroundings. It’s anchored by Feldstein, a star-in-the-making that seems to be on her way in becoming the next Jonah Hill, if it weren’t for the fact that she is Jonah Hill’s actual sister. The 25-year-old actress has incredible comedic timing and an all-too-subtle way of effortlessly switching back and forth between comedy and drama in the blink of an eye. If “Ladybird” only hinted at her talents by having her play second-fiddle to the brilliant Saoirse Ronan, then “Booksmart” is not just an introduction, it’s the confirmation of a new and indispensable talent at the movies. Feldstein is that good. [B]