★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN
During the first act of SXSW crowd-pleaser Booksmart there’s a fantastically humbling, game-changer of a moment for Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a smart if smug overachiever desperately tying up administrative loose ends on her last day of high school. She’s in a toilet cubicle, correcting the spelling of some graffiti when she overhears three of the cool kids dissecting and critiquing her try-hard personality, unaware she is listening in. Molly storms out and delivers a withering comeback, predicting a near future that will see her excelling at an Ivy League school while they struggle to enter the workforce.
In another film this would be a moment of triumph, a victimised bookworm standing up to mean-spirited bullies, but instead, we see Molly’s snobbish assumptions upended as her aggressors detail post-graduation plans just as impressive as hers. It’s a nasty shock to the system, a reveal that puts her entire perspective on school on its head, a realisation that in fact it was possible to both work hard and play hard, her teenage years now seeming like a wasteland of early nights and rejected party invites. The silver lining is that she didn’t spend this time alone, instead developing a co-dependent friendship with Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and with this new, earth-shaking knowledge, the pair agree to put their last night of school to good use, finally embracing the recklessness they’ve spent their lives trying to avoid.
The bare bones of the plot conjure up inevitable comparisons to Superbad and there are sequences that will feel familiar to anyone well-versed in high school comedies, but Olivia Wilde manages to grace her film with a distinctive aura all of its own. For one, romance and sex are relatively low down on the list for the girls while friendship, feminism and the pursuit of fun are of more importance, turning them from archetypes into fully fleshed, and flawed, young women. Like many first-time film-makers, Wilde is often tempted by stylistic excess but unlike so many others, she avoids an overload of visual indulgence, instead casually peppering her film with memorable flourishes, carefully metered. The script, from Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, has a loose shagginess that might take us on a recognisable route, but it’s one with unexpected detours, a fun, freewheeling ride that is mostly on point.
Booksmart is inclusive and progressive without feeling forced and announces Wilde, an actor who hasn’t always found her groove on screen, as a major director, one of the more impressive behind-the-camera transitions I have seen for a while. Her film reaches the audience-friendly highs of a studio comedy while retaining an indie sensibility, both in its visuals and its tone, and coupled with the script’s rooted awareness of the moment we’re now in, it feels fresh, a film that will be rewatched and quoted, held on a pedestal by those who understand its necessity
- BENJAMIN LEE, THE GUARDIAN