Only recently have filmmakers begun thinking seriously about coming-of-age stories told from a young woman’s point of view. Olivia Wilde’s clever, peppery Booksmart—in which Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play two brainy teenage best friends, unpopular with their classmates, who decide to cap off their high school experience by going to an actual party—further opens a door that’s right now merely ajar. Wilde’s directorial debut joins other recent pictures—like Marielle Heller’s 2015 The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Bo Burnham’s 2018 Eighth Grade—that explore universal teenage experiences even as they acknowledge that not all teenage girls are the same.
Feldstein’s Molly and Dever’s Amy aren’t shy, bullied kids. They’re smug about their terrific grades and unapologetic about their grand ambitions, so busy grooving on their own awesomeness that they can’t see beyond themselves; little wonder no one likes them. But when they learn that some of their classmates have gotten into good schools while also having fun along the way, it dawns on them how much they’ve missed, a problem they set out to rectify literally overnight.
In one evening, this duo’s deepest vulnerabilities are laid bare. Molly hasn’t dated at all, perhaps because she’s been subconsciously afraid to try. Amy is gay and out of the closet, refreshingly open about who she is and whom she likes, but that doesn’t make romance any easier for her. Disappointment awaits both, but there are triumphs too, and as trying as Molly and Amy can be, you want nothing less for them. Feldstein and Dever have a kind of mad, cartoon chipmunk chemistry, playing characters who know each other so well that they finish each other’s sentences and step on each other’s lines. What their friendship really needs is a little room to breathe. Booksmart is smart about that too.