Gay Scale: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. To paraphrase my favorite line ever from Roseanne (I know…I know…don’t @ me for it!): This film couldn’t be any gayer if its name was Gay Gayerson. Booksmart is deliriously, unapologetically gay. It’s a solid 50 on the Gay Scale.
So many great films have come from the “Teens Hanging Out All Night” genre. From American Graffiti to Dazed and Confused to Superbad, they’ve careened from one crazy real time scenario to another and left us taking that ethereal walk of shame in the morning. Now, just in time to queer up this tradition, comes Booksmart, the feature directorial debut of actor Olivia Wilde, and written by a committee of women (Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins), and it’s a hilarious, charming, slyly subversive addition to the canon.
BFFs, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), start their last day of high school at the top of their class after a lifetime of hard studying. While their peers seemingly partied their futures away, these two social outcasts seem to have laid the groundwork for what lies ahead. Of course, the rude awakening occurs in the first act, when Molly learns her classmates have all either gotten into prestigious colleges or scored great jobs while simultaneously enjoying all their hormones and boundless energy have to offer. Now, with one night left before graduation, Amy and Molly decide to have one wild night together. The basic plot may seem…well…basic…but the chemistry between our leads and a stellar supporting cast make it sing.
From the opening scene, in which Amy and Molly literally dance into our lives, this film shines with a verve and spirit often missing from teen comedies. Amy, an out lesbian who has yet to have sex, and Molly, the assured, balls out Class President, make a truly wonderful comedic team. While Amy can’t get up the nerve to ask out her crush Ryan (Victoria Ruesga), an always happy skateboarder, Molly has been blind to all of the students she’s looked down on, and only together can they really find their happy places in life. The journey may seem trite as we literally watch them hope from party to party in search of the ultimate one, but the emotions ring true while never turning to mush.
Feldstein, in her young career, has already stood out in Neighbors 2 and Lady Bird, but with her first starring role, she seizes the moment and attacks every second with a similar sense of danger to that of her brother Jonah Hill and, dare I say, that of the late, great John Belushi. She also delivers emotionally in several key scenes which brought this silly comedy to a higher level. By the end, she wasn’t the only person with tears in her eyes. With such stiff competition, Dever goes toe-to-toe with Feldstein and makes Amy an equally wild, fully fleshed-out character. Whether it’s watching them pull crazy faces in a speeding car or feeling the discomfort of a very public fight, you want to follow them anywhere. With such archetypes as these two, you would expect Feldstein to carry the gross-out comedic aspects, but Dever steps up here and winningly sells scenes such as the unforgettable moment she lets her fingers do the walking. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
BOOKSMART populates itself with a ton of fantastic supporting characters, from Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s doting parents, Skyler Gisondo (The Santa Clarita Diet) as a rich kid who carts around a hot mess called Gigi (a hilarious Billie Lourd) and awkwardly crushes on Molly, to Molly Gordon (Animal Kingdom) as a student with a bad reputation but with more layers than you’d expect. Diana Silvers has a sly way with her lines as another potential love interest for Amy and I loved what Jessica Williams did with a small amount of screen time as a teacher who clearly refuses to morph into an adult. I also loved Noah Galvin (The Real O’Neals) and Austin Crute as a hilarious pair of gay theater queens who have never met a RuPaul catchphrase they didn’t sell to the back rows.
Olivia Wilde, who, along with her cinematographer, Jason McCormick, don’t reinvent the wheel, but display a propulsive, sometimes beautiful cinematic sensibility. One gorgeously shot underwater sequence really stood out as did the overall pacing, which starts off at 11 and never slows down. She could have dialed back on the endless music cues and some of the whiplash energy which prevented some of the jokes from landing. This would have allowed the film to breathe more, but I chalk that up to first-time director excitement she must have felt when she cut the film together and saw that she had something special. The film reminded me of last year’s Blockers but without as much of a parental presence and with a much more cinematic eye. Both featured strong young female characters who took a big bite out of life, but Booksmart has its own unique charms. It’s not perfect, but it’s a blast. As a whole, Booksmart earns its place in the pantheon of its predecessors all the way up to the way it undercuts its big emotional moment for one final, funny exchange as it smash cuts to black.
Booksmart is in UK and US cinemas now
By Glenn Gaylord