Breaking the Rules

The first five minutes of Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut — the uncommonly smart, genuinely funny, generously humane teen comedy Booksmart — are so full of joy, so vibrant with a sublime harmony of wit and wisdom and wackiness, that I sensed I was levitating off my seat. There’s no way the movie can keep this up, I thought. There’s no way it can maintain such a high level of antic, warm-hearted slapstick and sharp, brainy writing. 

But it can. It does.

And it does so within the most familiar of cinematic types: the teen comedy, and more specifically the comedy of the teen outcast seeking connection through — to put the bluntest of points on it — a really big, really cool party, and everything that entails in the way of sexuality, status and the temporary freedom of cutting loose.

On the eve of their high school graduation, besties Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are looking toward the future, because that’s all they’ve ever done. Preternatural high-achievers and intellectual snobs, these two soul twins are now prepared to reap the reward of four years of academic excellence. Molly is off to Yale, and Amy is heading abroad to help African women make tampons.

These girls aren’t simply nerds. They are politically engaged, wickedly literate nerds who are anything but clueless. They want to set the world on fire. They have repudiated all that dumb high school shit — beer bongs, backseat handjobs, the hallway clowning and selfie sharing — for a better world.

That world comes crumbling down around them when they learn that nearly all their seemingly adrift and dunderheaded classmates have also gained entry into the best schools — Stanford, Harvard, even Yale. What was the point of it all? In anguish, they vow to have fun before graduation by attending the big, end-of-the-year blowout party.

Into this hackneyed formula the screenwriting team of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman injects a rare wealth of situational comedy, all of it fleshed out by three-dimensional characters that never break down into “good” and “bad,” or “cool” and “cruel.” The comedy is at once tender and razor-sharp, and always pitch perfect; it finds a heady balance between revelation and hilarity, never failing to advance our understanding of character. Yes, Booksmart is funny ha-ha, but it’s also bittersweet and painful and intensely compassionate.

And, without drawing ideological attention to itself, the film addresses a slew of contemporary issues. It does so while never forgetting that, first, these are thinking, feeling kids on the verge of adulthood and, second, that every generation both inherits and forges its own cultural markers, its own struggles and means of overcoming. Amy’s longing for a skater girl (Victoria Ruesga as Ryan) is treated with touching and uproarious normality, because the focus is on the eternal awkwardness of romance and its fumbling first blush.

Here the word dignity comes to mind. As director, Wilde bestows dignity — a strong sense of the confusion and beauty and unpredictability of life as its really lived — on each character and each moment, and she has the cooperation of a fantastic cast in her efforts. Dever and Feldstein are charming beyond belief, and they are surrounded by a strong cast of supporting characters, each fully realized: Skyler Gisondo as Jared, the rich kid desperately trying to buy his peers’ affection; his crazy, omniscient friend Gigi (Billie Lourd); the class “slut” Triple A (Molly Gordon); and the boneheaded party boy Nick (Mason Gooding), Molly’s secret crush.

Booksmart has been compared to Superbad, and I suppose the comparison is apt, in a sense, but it falls woefully short. Despite its frenetic pacing, Booksmart has more in common with Richard Linklater’s 1993 masterpiece Dazed and Confused. It has that film’s heart and vision, applied not to a lost generation of ’70s stoners and jocks but to the present generation, which faces a very different world — a digital world of immediate access, instant rewards, lowered standards and heightened tensions. 

Wilde humanizes this much maligned but rarely understood generation, giving it a voice that is properly rapturous, chaotic and, yes, dignified — dignified like Chaplin in Modern Times, an adorable tramp wading through a morass of modernity. That Booksmart manages to be authentically optimistic and uplifting without shirking the enormous pitfalls of our age is but one of its significant triumphs. It also rescues the teen comedy — in fact, comedy itself — from its own adolescent and scatological pretensions, raising it to a place of artistry. (Broadway Metro