Booksmart: a warm, cerebral and infectious high school comedy

Booksmart freshens up hyper-masculine cinematic motifs, insisting that the brash American party movie can be both silly and smart.

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Best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) never wanted to be cool. They were happy enough being smart, especially with each other for company: spending their time over-effusively complimenting each other, mocking their classmates, swapping secrets about their sexual desires, and improving their New York Times crossword time. Molly’s room is adorned with pictures of Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Amy’s car carries a “Warren 2020” sticker.

 As school comes to a close, valedictorian and debating champ Molly is gearing up to go to Yale (or, as she insists on saying, “up in New Haven”) while Amy is about to spend the summer before college (Columbia) in Botswana helping women make their own tampons. (They’re going to Skype the NYT puzzles every single week.) But then they learn their classmates are going to top colleges too, having managed to get A grades while having fun. Suddenly, on their last day of high school, they realise they have one last chance to have some fun of their own.

The late Noughties saw the rise of a sub-genre of gleefully vulgar party films that follow a single night of accelerating misbehaviour, from Superbad and The Hangover to Game Night. Booksmart is a more cerebral take on the genre: its clever, funny, feminist leads undercut the dafter party sequences with their own private wit and chemistry. On screen together, they are an infectious delight.

The set-up bakes some pacing issues into the film: the lead arcs feel like they’re on fast-forward and secondary characters are underdeveloped; a long sequence where Molly and Amy become animated Barbie dolls feels like a misstep. As the friends search for hottie Nick’s elusive house party, they repeatedly find themselves at the wrong address, or alone at the side of the rode with no phone battery: but these deliberate narrative frustrations only hamper the film’s momentum, which pleasingly clicks into gear once Molly and Amy actually arrive.

The soundtrack, with songs from Lizzo, Perfume Genius, and Run the Jewels, is charismatically deployed, though the ironic use of “Unchained Melody” in an emotionally climactic scene makes too much of a joke of Amy and Molly’s sincere, grounded friendship. While it lacks the depth and heart of Feldstein’s other high school comedy, Lady Bird, Booksmart is a warm, viable comedy that freshens up hyper-masculine cinematic motifs, insisting that the brash American party movie can be both silly and smart.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.