For her feature directorial debut, Olivia Wilde wanted to up the intensity of a high school movie. Screenwriter Katie Silberman was brought in to rework a script that had already passed through a few word processors, and she says Wilde’s vision was to pitch the level of emotion and import somewhere in the vicinity of Training Day. The resulting film, Booksmart, strikes me as falling short of that stated goal, but the aspiration does offer a hint as to why it works more often than it doesn’t. As familiar as many of its particulars are, Wilde and her collaborators are striving to create a movie just a little sharper than its antecedents.
The film’s main narrative gets properly when student government president and proud valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that her relentless academic overachieving at the expense of a social life hasn’t delivered the expected outcome of her significantly outpacing her classmates, many of whom indulged in rambunctious teen frippery and still managed to secure entry to elite colleges and universities. On the eve of graduation, Molly decides to make up for lost time-killing, enlisting her best friend and fellow brainiac, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), in a plan to crash the biggest party of the night. The duo has only the barest idea of what decadence might be had at the bash — despite social media video attests to ghost pepper consumption and pizza box karate — but there’s a conviction that it is an experience unmet, a box to be checked with paper-tearing vigor.
As a director, Wilde has a nice visual sense. She also exhibits some of the most common first-timer symptoms, including some anxious editing, overly fussy shots, and a compulsion to shove too many ideas through the door at once. On the last point, too many ideas still makes for a better movie than too few. Booksmart follows the model set forth by Superbad, Can’t Hardly Wait, and a bevy of other films in which anarchic revelry leads to the stealth wisdom that comes with growing up and maybe a touch of self-actualization. and Wilde has an admirable ability to come by her more insightful moments honestly. She largely avoids easy heroes and villains, or even shorthand brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals. With cunning deftness, Wilde allows every character to play out with levels of complexity and contradiction. She trusts her youthful cast to settle into a bright truthfulness. Longtime ace Dever is the strongest, but there are also nice supporting turns from Molly Gordon (as a classmate tagged with a nickname connoting promiscuity), Skyler Gisondo (as wealthy student overeager for friendship), and especially Billie Lourd (as a child so wild the behavior transforms into a sort of strange magic).
Booksmart is messy, peppered with comedic diversions that work only fitfully. But it’s also warm and empathetic, reaching for uncommon nuance with determination and verve. Wilde might have issue an imperfect opening salvo as a filmmaker, but it’s still an exciting start. Like her two protagonists, she clearly has a lot to say and every bit of it is worth hearing.