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High school consequential – ‘Booksmart’

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I’m an unabashed fan of teen comedies. From John Hughes on down, I have always loved stories of teenagers doing teenager stuff. I particularly love coming-of-age stories, whether they’re emotionally grounded stories of tentative steps into adulthood or broad “last night before graduation” raunchfests.

When I initially learned about the new film “Booksmart,” I got the impression it would be the latter. And it is – but it’s also the former. It is heartfelt and thoughtful in ways that will ring true to anyone who is (or ever was) a teenager, capturing the challenges faced by a certain kind of student as they prepare to move forward from high school. But it is ALSO a foul-mouthed and unapologetically weird comedy, packed with high-minded jokes and lowbrow gags alike.

Seriously – however good you think this movie is, it’s almost certainly better.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein, “Lady Bird”) is a classic high school overachiever. She is the valedictorian and class president, having devoted every ounce of her energy to being an academic force. She shot for the stars and was accepted to Yale, her dream school. Her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, “Beautiful Boy”) is a constant presence; the salutatorian, Amy is an out lesbian who is headed to Columbia University after a summer helping people in Botswana. Both women immerse themselves in academia and express their admiration for feminist icons past and present.

They also have more than a little disdain for their classmates, looking down on them for wasting time partying and squandering their opportunities to attend top-tier schools. Only it turns out that even though their classmates have spent their high school years doing, well, high school stuff, said classmates ALSO got into good schools. Dim bulb class VP Nick (Mason Gooding, TV’s “Ballers”) got into Georgetown. Mean girl Triple-A (Molly Gordon, “Life of the Party”) – so named because of her reputation for “roadside assistance” – is also going to Yale. Even try-hard rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo, TV’s “Santa Clarita Diet”) and weirdo Gigi (Billie Lourd, TV’s “American Horror Story”) got into great schools.

Enraged by the perceived injustice of it all, Molly demands that Amy join her in a new mission – to make up for lost time in one glorious blowout night before graduation the next morning. Amy, being a good friend, agrees, albeit reluctantly – her own hope is to finally find the courage to act on her crush on skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga in her feature debut).

What follows is a truly epic evening, one that sees the duo searching desperately all over Los Angeles for the location of the biggest bash, hosted by the aforementioned dim bulb Nick. They wind up landing in various places over the course of the night – a poorly-attended party on a yacht, a murder mystery party hosted by the theater kids, the back seat of the Lyft driven by their principal (Jason Sudeikis, “Driven” … the list goes on.

But as they make their way closer to the party, Molly and Amy find themselves being slowly pulled apart. Not only are they placing undue pressure on themselves to create this incredible night, but they’re struggling to come to terms with just what it means to their relationship now that their high school days are finally coming to an end. They have to decide if they actually want what they believe they want – or if it is something else that they seek.

“Booksmart” is a crystal-clear and deeply funny look at female friendship, an exploration of the dynamic that isn’t often seen on the big screen. First-time director Olivia Wilde absolutely nails it – not only does she have a wonderful eye for scenic pictures and a sharp ear for dialogue, she’s possessed of a fearlessness that belies her inexperience behind the camera. This is a movie full of bold choices. And almost all of them work.

(There’s one particularly absurd scene involving stop-motion that I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say that it was an incredibly audacious choice for a rookie director – one that I vigorously applaud.)

The obvious comparison here is to something like “Superbad,” with its casual attitude toward the profane and willingness to go big (not to mention the fact that Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s younger sister). There’s also more than a little “Lady Bird” (which also featured Feldstein, so there’s that connection as well) to this film too. But ultimately, “Booksmart” is very much its own thing; yes, there are elements that are reminiscent of other teen coming-of-age comedies, but the whole should not be defined by those parts.

Of particular note is the way that the film gleefully subverts teen movie tropes, leaning into archetypes one moment, only to pull a 180 the next. Some expectations are met, while others are completely ignored – and there are plenty of surprises.

This is a movie that is going to live or die on the shoulders of its leads. Feldstein and Dever are outstanding, with a palpable chemistry that truly evokes lifelong friendship. From deep-cut historical references to dorky dances to the well-worn routines found in any BFF situation, this duo nails it every single time. Their performances are heartfelt and vulnerable and crass and goofy – sometimes all at once – and they are a delight. The ensemble excels as well. The student population is an embarrassment of riches – Lourd and Gisondo are particular standouts, but everyone is great. Sudeikis has a couple of great scenes, as do Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow as Amy’s uncomfortable, yet unwaveringly supportive parents. Still, it’s very much the Feldstein and Dever show – and they deliver.

“Booksmart” is a heartfelt and honest comedy about relationships – the sort of movie we should all hope to see more often. With a great script, great direction and a fantastic central pairing, it really is a joy to watch.

[5 out of 5]

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