Has a name ever invited instant stardom as surely as “Beanie Feldstein”? Feldstein’s breakout performance as the sweet-natured, supportive best friend in “Lady Bird” was a modest triumph. In the new movie “Booksmart,” she gracefully commands the lead in a role that calls on the same earnestness that “Lady Bird” fans fell in love with, this time laced with a vulgar, sometimes vitriolic edge.
Molly, Feldstein’s character, is a high school senior on the last day of high school, her perfectionism and academic overachievement having culminated in an acceptance to Yale and a self-satisfied feeling of superiority. Together with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), Molly has held herself above the jocks, party girls, theater geeks and slackers who wasted four years having fun. But when Molly discovers that they’ve actually been just as successful while she’s been grinding it out, she crumbles. She and Amy vow to cram four years of fun into their final night in high school, embarking on an odyssey of transgressive pleasures and romantic pursuits that is one part Dante and one part “Dazed and Confused.”
Richard Linklater’s teenage picaresque is just one classic invoked by “Booksmart,” which joins a lineage that arguably began with “American Graffiti” and achieved peak anarchy with “Superbad” (which starred Feldstein’s real-life brother, Jonah Hill). Directed with knockabout panache by actress Olivia Wilde (making her behind-the-camera debut), “Booksmart” possesses the same endearing, openhearted expansiveness as its forebears in the Bacchanalian night-in-the-life genre, with a couple of clever switch-ups and scads of timely cultural references. Molly and Amy each have a secret crush they’re determined to get with by the evening’s end — one a guy and one a girl — and in between nods to drugs, porn and masturbation, the movie is crammed with feminist signifiers, from homages to Michelle Obama and RBG to the “Resist” bumper sticker on Amy’s Volvo. This is a movie where the protagonists parse the differences between gender performance and sexual orientation as casually as they drop the f-bomb.
And f-bombs are dropped, fast and furiously, in “Booksmart,” which sometimes feels like it’s straining a little too hard to be as crude as the Apatovian bromances it both imitates and comments on. The film’s script (originated by Susanna Fogel and Emily Halpern, updated by Sarah Haskins and re-updated by “Set It Up’s” Katie Silberman) tries mightily to be in-your-face, racking up way too many vagina jokes when just one would have sufficed, and at one point digressing into a bizarre hallucination scene enacted by Barbie-like dolls. Hovering just below the ether of pure fantasy, “Booksmart” occurs in an alternate reality where L.A. traffic doesn’t exist and characters pop up with impossibly convenient precision throughout Molly and Amy’s excellent adventure.
The most inexplicably ubiquitous character is a boho diva named Gigi, played with blowzy, amusingly addled abandon by Billie Lourd. Wilde has assembled a fabulous cast of game young actors to play Molly and Amy’s eccentric classmates, who define a kind of Platonic ideal of high school queen bees, oddballs and misfits. Even the educators — played by Jessica Williams and Jason Sudeikis — are improbably chill in this upbeat comedy, in which even the mean girls are nice underneath.
As “Booksmart” takes its shape, albeit haphazardly, Wilde’s filmmaking skills become more and more evident, bursting forth in a third act that builds into something beautiful and even transcendent. Sneaking her camera through a raucous party scene, stopping along the way for a lyrical swimming pool sequence filmed almost entirely underwater, she invites the audience to see these kids as she does: with respect, affection and belief in their essential goodness, despite their adolescent impulses.
Those impulses can be viciously cruel and self-destructive, as a glance at any teenager’s social media account will attest. But even in the midst of miscreants and mischief, Wilde prefers to celebrate the kind of tolerance and self-awareness that Generation Z personifies at its very best. “Booksmart” is fantastical, but rooted in the optimistic conviction that it’s possible for a high school to exist where no one gets hurt, and a lucky few even get healed.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong sexual material and crude language throughout, drug use and drinking, all involving teens. 97 minutes.