Cinema was perfected when the party comedy was conceived. With the right talent behind them, party comedies like Neighbors and Blockers can transcend our common understanding of art and elevate us to a higher plane of cinematic enjoyment we never thought possible before. And even bad movies like Sisters and The Hangover trilogy are watchable at the very worst, because it is always a pleasure to see people chuggin’ booze and munchin’ shrooms. Although I am being slightly facetious about the importance of party comedies, if any pitch involves the phrases “high school party” or “middle aged people partying in an effort to be young again,” I am automatically and earnestly hooked.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart is right up my alley. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are their high school’s best two students. They have slaved away all of their K-12 career acing tests and swimming through endless extracurriculars so that they can glide into the nation’s Ivy League schools. Their efforts have worked, but once Molly finds out that many of her classmates who spend their days chuggin’ booze and munchin’ shrooms are also getting into top-notch colleges, Molly convinces herself that her and Amy’s efforts were all for naught. They decide that they will go to their classmate Nick’s (Mason Gooding) party on the night before graduation so they can say they didn’t spend all of high school not having any fun.
Their biggest stumbling block is the fact that, since they have mostly had their heads in the scholastic realm, they do not know Nick’s address nor do they know anyone with Nick’s address. The first 40 or so minutes of the film follow Molly and Amy’s efforts to get to Nick’s house, and these minutes are where Booksmart shine because it conveys the true oddity of high school. Eighties high school movies like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink have their merits, but their depiction of all high schoolers as fitting into a very specific stereotype have always kept me at arm’s length from them emotionally. But Booksmart (and many other recent high school pieces like Netflix series American Vandal and young adult novel Me and Earl and The Dying Girl) refute that tendency by giving its supporting characters their own flavor of weirdness that is unique to them – something I saw much more often in high school than I saw people who were super stereotypically jock-ish or preppy.
Highlights from the supporting cast include Gigi (Billie Lourde), who pops up in every destination that Amy and Molly find themselves in on the way to Nick’s as if some kind of drugged out North star. Gig knows how to get to Nick’s house, but rather than giving our duo the address she gives out cryptic fortune-cookie clues that push them slightly farther to Nick’s right before she mysteriously backs into the shadows. Jared (Skylar Gisondo) is also a stand-out of the film as an awkward loner who tricks out his race-car and rents party yachts with his dad’s money in an effort to attract friends who are unwilling to hang out with him because they see him as (and granted, this is his literal license plate ID) a “fuk boi.” Even Nick, who is portrayed in the film’s opening moments as an ignorant ape, is quite charming and deceptively smart. All of the high school characters – jock, nerd, rich, prep, whatever labels we’re tempted to use – have complicated lives that aren’t waiting to be discovered, as a movie like The Breakfast Club would argue, but they are already presented openly in their day-to-day interactions with each other. And most of them are aware of each other’s complexities. It is Molly and Amy who have spent so much of their time doing homework and looking down upon their “dumber” cohort who need to open their eyes and catch-up to their classmates’ awareness.
The success of the supporting cast is only heightened by the seamless performances of Feldstein and Dever. Booksmart is a movie about their eyes opening to the high school they missed out on, but it is also a movie about their relationship. Molly is a more commanding force, and often seems to drag Amy into situations (like going to Nick’s party at all) that she does not want to be in. But Amy levels Molly at points by giving her heaps of uplifting encouragement that warms up her sometimes cold heart a bit. They both give and take quite a bit in their friendship and Dever and Feldstein sell that friendship effortlessly. In scenes where Amy and Molly are separated, their classmates make remarks like “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you without Amy/Molly,” and audiences have that seem feeling every time they are apart; the bond is so strong that it is hard to process them as individuals rather than a unit, which eventually becomes a conflict in their friendship in the movie’s third act. It takes a lot for two actors to create such a dense unity between characters, but Feldstein and Dever are incredibly successful in doing it.
The main reason I am incredibly susceptible to party comedies is that parties have a positive and wholesome undercurrent to them. Everyone is gathering just to have a good time. Things go awry at many, to be sure, but they are created simply for people to unify and have fun. The party setting bonds groups of people who often seem like they can’t have a bond. Booksmart uses that setting to show that people’s tendency to heap ill-informed perceptions and roles onto others is foolish, because at their core high schoolers are all scared but well-meaning people who are trying to find their identity. Molly and Amy have spent so much time assuming that their classmates are below them when in fact they are all on the same playing field, and without having gone to Nick’s party the duo would likely have never learned that. But at the same time Molly and Amy’s friendship, while very insular, is a remarkable one that is worth celebration and the party setting of Booksmart does exactly that. Olivia Wilde told NPR that she hoped Booksmart makes teens “celebrate being young,” and its love for its characters and their weirdness certainly shows that being young is a treasure rather than a burden.
“Booksmart” opened in theaters May 25th. See your local theater for showtimes and watch the trailer here. You can follow Adrian on Twitter @APBryant32 to hear more of his never-ending love for boozey party comedies.