Movie Review: Booksmart

Movie-going audiences can be a fickle bunch, as the execs at Annapurna Pictures are finally realising. Their latest film, BOOKSMART, is receiving great reviews – it’s “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes – but it’s bombing at the box office. ALADDIN, not surprisingly, owned the box office last weekend in the US, taking in over US$90 million while BOOKSMART didn’t quite hit US$7 million. That’s too bad because this witty, coming-of-age story is probably the best film out right now that no one is seeing.

Molly (Beanie Feldstein, LADY BIRD) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, BEAUTIFUL BOY; SHORT TERM 12; THE SPECTACULAR NOW; TV’s LAST MAN STANDING) are a pair of over-achieving seniors at an upscale Los Angeles-area high school. The BFFs have just spent their past four years doing everything right so that they could get accepted into top-tier universities but, on the eve of their graduation, they learn that the irresponsible kids in their class, which is pretty much everyone else, got into the best universities too. (Let’s leave aside the very real possibility that some of these kids may have gotten into good schools thanks to their parents’ financial intervention à la Felicity Huffman, Lori Laughlin and others.) One even landed a six-figure paying job at Google. For Molly and Amy, the news is devastating to them. They avoided parties and all kinds of rule-breaking activities that kids their age typically get into and what did their sacrifice get them? All that is about to change when Molly convinces Amy that they absolutely have to crash the end-of-year party hosted by their very popular classmate, Nick (Mason Gooding, Cuba Jr.’s son), at his aunt’s house. The problem, though, is that they don’t know where the woman lives and none of their classmates is about to provide them with that information. In the process of pulling out all the stops to try to find the party and then finally getting there, the girls learn a lot not just about each other but about the people that they had looked down upon too. It turns out that the cool kids have the same fears, anxieties, desires and loyalties that they have.

BOOKSMART is the feature film debut for actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde (LIFE ITSELF, TV’s HOUSE). It plays out not unlike the 2007 film, SUPERBAD, which coincidentally stars Feldstein’s older brother, Jonah Hill, though that earlier film is a fair bit raunchier. That’s not to say that Molly and Amy don’t swear like sailors and spend a lot of time talking about sex. They do, which is a refreshing take on the female high school experience. Feldstein, who shares her brother’s comedic timing, is a hoot, delivering zingers to anyone and everyone who gets in her way. What’s nice about how her character, and all the characters for that matter, are written is that they’re all multi-layered, from straight-laced Amy who isn’t straight to the rich kid who is desperately lonely to the class tramp who hates her nickname but chooses to keep quiet in order to fit in. No one is as they appear on the outside. Even Principal Brown, played by Wilde’s off-screen partner, Jason Sudeikis (DOWNSIZING; COLOSSAL; RACE), and the class’ English teacher, Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD), have a few surprises of their own that are revealed to the girls in the course of their late-night adventure.

Unlike SUPERBAD, which gets bogged down in an unnecessary sub-plot, BOOKSMART zips along throughout its 102-minute running time. (Fifteen minutes could easily have been cut from SUPERBAD.) An hallucinogen-induced stop motion animation sequence where the girls see themselves as Barbie dolls is hilarious. There’s also a great scene between the girls and Amy’s parents, who are played by comedy veterans Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte. Like all the others, Charmaine and Doug are not who they appear to be, though we only get the sense that when their daughter is not around, they crack open a few bottles of chardonnay and get funky.

Just because audiences are avoiding this film doesn’t mean you should too. BOOKSMART is currently playing in North America and is slowly making its way around the world. It hasn’t been scheduled for release in Hong Kong yet but it is available now on Amazon Prime. Be moviesmart and check it out before everyone else does.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, May 31st at 8:30 am HK time!

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