Every younger generation of film fans is lucky if they’re gifted with a subversive teen movie that taps into the group’s zeitgeist. For that current generation, director Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” may very well represent that.
I can’t pretend to know — despite having a son in high school — what it’s like now to inhabit that world, but I know when a film captures the angst, awkwardness, disappointment and sheer joy of those years.
The intelligent, occasionally jubilant and oftentimes poignant “Booksmart” is that.
Wilde has confessed in interviews that '80s-era films such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Say Anything,” along with other coming-of-age comedies such as “Dazed and Confused,” influenced the team of four writers and herself. Those '80s-era films mentioned above stayed with me and I shared them with my sons.
Others come to mind with “Booksmart,” however, as the tenderness of “16 Candles,” the characters of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the sheer verve of one of Nicolas Cage’s first films, “Valley Girl,” and its complementary soundtrack, reveal themselves in this story of the last 24 hours before the graduation of friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein).
During that time they’re given a rude awakening — they spent four years in high school doing nothing but studying. But while their hard work paid off with acceptance to Columbia and Yale, respectively, they soon learn classmates who spent time partying, socializing and blowing off steam on weekends, didn’t necessarily have to make the same sacrifices to get to similar places.
That sends Molly on a quest. She wants to experience that party lifestyle before the last of those years ticks away the next day at graduation. She convinces Amy to join her in finding the ultimate party where all of those popular teens will be.
To say it turns into an adventure, as they are tricked into showing up at one classmate’s yacht party, then stumble into the drama club’s murder mystery shindig, would be an understatement.
The party-hopping features a cast of characters including one reminiscent of “Ridgemont High’s” Jeff Spicoli as one in particular, Gigi (Billie Lourd), combines similar dependence on mind-altering substances that somehow lead to revelatory wisdom.
During the narrative, Wilde and her company of performers unpack all of the angst, doubts and fears that come from living life as a teen. Some feelings stay universal and those teen years seem to hold the most common emotions and experiences across generations.
The times, however, alter the situations a filmmaker can explore. Amy’s awkwardness at being a virgin and lesbian provides a key example. Such circumstances enhance “Booksmart” as they give them a different perspective and an aura of freshness that’s not forced. They just are part of life’s tapestry.
In the relatively fresh-faced Dever and Feldstein, Wilde's found the perfect pair of on-screen best friends who deliver outstanding performances with enthusiasm, depth and, when necessary, comedic timing that all feels so natural it’s as if they’ve grown up together.
Wilde operates from no agenda here other than telling a familiar story for different times. In the process, she creates a film that may eventually achieve classic status much as the some of the ones that obviously influenced her.
“Booksmart” could very well end up being the unexpected gem of the summer.
George M. Thomas dabbles in movies and television for the Beacon Journal. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByGeorgeThomas.