Movie Review: “Booksmart”

Straitlaced high-school girls who have wanted a “Superbad” of their own now have it, and it’s called “Booksmart”—another raucous, after-hours adventure where friendships are tested and debaucheries are explored, all of it taking place on the eve of high school graduation. To underline the comparison further, it even co-stars Jonah Hill’s younger sister, the terrific Beanie Feldstein.

Indeed, “Booksmart,” the directorial debut from actor Olivia Wilde, reverberates with the echoes of many a hedonistic rite-of-passage teen comedy, with a plot that comfortably recycles their clichés and formulaic structures. But it’s the awareness—the wokeness, if you must—that lends the film its distinction. From the art direction to the script’s underlying DNA, “Booksmart” is a post-#MeToo film about smart, sex-positive feminists seeking grad-night thrills on their terms, and it feels firmly ensconced in the Now.

From the opening survey of Molly’s (Feldstein) bedroom, the art direction reveals enough to capture her personality and political leanings: There’s a Michelle Obama poster on her wall, and a framed picture of the Notorious R.B.G. on her dresser—a constant reminder of Molly’s career aspirations. It’s the last day of school, and she’s going to enjoy it with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn), whose car is emblazoned with “RESIST” and “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. This is a film that’s unafraid to divide its audience in the first five minutes, where it’s already a bolder picture than the entirety of the milquetoast “Long Shot.”

Molly, whose academic drive led to her election as class president, and Amy are the smartest students in their school, on tracks for Yale and Columbia, respectively. While their classmates have indulged in all matter of underage drinking and sexual impropriety, these bookish besties spent the entirety of their four years pursuing scholastic excellence. Finally, on the last night of high school, to their own surprise, they decide to let loose, and attend the graduation party of the year—a quixotic journey riven with roadblocks, depleted cell phones, lame detours at other parties, the ingestion of psychedelics, the consumption of lesbian porn, even a quasi stickup in a stranger’s car.

The elevator pitch for “Booksmart” could be scrawled on a cocktail napkin and still leave room for some of the credits. As this girls’ trip grows later and weirder, the film reconciles its antics with simplistic corner-cutting and wildly implausible plot turns. But the characters at its center are so likable and genuine that they consistently win you over. Their camaraderie, and the support they show each other, is the movie’s infectious heart.

As the protagonists in a teen-movie rager, there’s also a freshness to them. In Hollywood products of yore, the nerdy intellectual girls are usually background characters, deployed at best for a subversive wink—think Alyson Hannigan’s secretly kinky band geek in “American Pie.” Here, they drive the narrative. In fact, this movie is generally devoid of beautiful people. Everybody from Molly and Amy’s crushes to the class clown is gangly, goofy or awkward, with body shapes that don’t conform to swimsuit advertisements.

For all the reductive silliness that “Booksmart” feels it must engage in, especially in its rote home stretch, Molly and Amy remain inspirations for a generation of girls in similar positions, whose stories have been largely excluded from a studio system still overseen by a predominantly male gaze.

Horndog boy flicks are as common as red Solo cups at bad parties. Films about the future Ruth Bader Ginsburgs of the world are only recently earning their tassels.

“Booksmart” is now playing at most area theaters.