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Review: Booksmart – “Laughs and life lessons”

For those of us who left high school during the gross-out, testosterone fest of American Pie it would have been fantastic to have seen this kind of film instead. Actor-turned Director Olivia Wilde’s debut film comedy (written by a female writing team of Susanna Fogel, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman and Emily Halpern) takes all the tropes of the classic American teen movie, mixes them up and turns them on their head.

It’s the last night of high school, a heady 24 hrs where friendships are tested, car rides go awry, and the hopes and dreams about the next chapter are tantalisingly out of reach.

BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are suffering from a serious case of FOMO. Having spent their high school years on an earnest mission to sacrifice teenage kicks for straight As and bright futures, they suddenly want a piece of the action their classmates have been getting.

On the brink of graduation, Molly is a valedictorian with her eyes on taking a seat on the Supreme Court, and Amy is about to leave for a summer volunteering in Botswana. They wear their bookishness like a badge of honour, lording it over the less scholarly. But their bubble is abruptly burst in a brilliant bathroom scene that pours cold water over their theory that you can’t be smart and party.

It turns out that getting into Yale and Columbia isn’t so special when all your hedonistic peers are also going to Ivy League colleges or being headhunted by Silicon Valley too.

But if you can’t beat them, you’ve got to join them, and for Molly, the alpha to her shy pal Amy, their mission is clear: to shed their bookish image and transform themselves into 24-hour party pupils. ‘’Nobody knows we’re fun,” Molly says “They need to know.”

There is impressive ensemble energy in Booksmart, the class clowns, the stoners, the popular kids are all more than the sum of their parts, its a skilful broad comedy that laughs with its subjects, not at them.

But the bitter-sweet nature of adolescent female friendship is the real heart of the film, amplified by the on-screen chemistry between its co-leads. A quippy exchange about masturbation sets up their dynamic early on. It’s refreshingly frank and deadpan, like a Gen Z Broad City.

Feldstein shows comedy lead chops that elevate her from the supporting roles she’s had before, while Dever deftly shows the curiosity and confusion of being young, queer and shy without it defining her character.

Like most Judd Apatow-produced comedies, the running time feels a tad long, and some the film’s more ‘extra’ party sequences are a touch show-boaty (literally, in one scene). But like Bo Burnham’s 8th Grade, a pool party scene is a less showy, potent cocktail of identity, body image and confusion.

There are laughs and life lessons for the co-dependent duo and their peers. Feminism, female desire, identity and privilege are commented on with a lightness of touch, and a tonne of smart zingers, no one is getting lectured here.

Girls just wanna have fun, get great grades and figure out who the hell they are. It’s a lot of fun to hang out with them while they do.

Booksmart is in UK cinemas from 27th May 2019.

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