Booksmart review: Olivia Wilde's lovable teen comedy overachieves on every level

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Billie Lourd, left, and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart
Billie Lourd, left, and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Dir: Olivia Wilde. Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Victoria Ruesga, Mason Gooding. 15 cert, 102 mins

We’re lucky to get a Booksmart once a year: a teen-focused comedy with characters you already miss as the end credits roll. There’s a host of them here, but the main two, in Olivia Wilde’s snappy and addictive directing debut, form one of the most unbreakable units the genre has lately given us. They’re Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a pair of overachieving students just about to graduate from high school and enter the next phase of their lives — together, we mistakenly assume.

These two have gone all in with their schoolwork, to the extent that they’re practically social pariahs, and while they assume the effort has paid off, netting them much classier college berths than any of their more hard-partying contemporaries, this, too, turns out to be a delusion. They wake up on the very last day of school to the looming realisation that they’ve let an awful lot pass them by: the freedom to be a teenage dirtbag, basically, with all the messy experimentation and self-discovery that implies.

Booksmart borrows a trick from the high-school flicks of a generation ago — especially The Breakfast Club, but also Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused — in unfolding over one significant night, when Amy and Molly try for the first time to live it up, shucking off their reputations as boring workaholics once and for all.

Amy, who’s been out for a couple of years, is finally nudged to do something about it, making the moves on a tough cookie called Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) for whom she’s long carried a torch. The way this subplot pans out is a great reminder not to judge a book by its cover, in our genderfluid and more sexually ambiguous age.

Meanwhile, Molly has given just that sort of prejudicial treatment to a guy named Nick (Mason Gooding), a handsome doofus who’s been relying on her efficiency as head of the class to do almost nothing as vice-president. The girls psych themselves up to gatecrash a party that night, chez Nick, which is where truths will out between everyone in the most embarrassingly public way imaginable.

Booksmart treads some familiar ground at first, and the story seems to be spinning its wheels until the duo get to that shindig: the detours occupying them beforehand can feel a little thinly motivated. The movie might have risked a bit more bookishness, too. There's a wariness, perhaps understandably, about not making Amy and Molly intimidatingly clever for a presumed audience brought up on Superbad-style mayhem and bodily fluids: we know this stuff is all on the way, but some deeper dives into their precocious chitchat and shared interests wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Luckily, Wilde has brought together a pair of stars whose joy in each other’s company is impossible not to relish, and their chemistry just goofing around reaches Tina-Fey-and-Amy-Poehler levels of inspired fizz. Dever, a long-term TV star with killer timing, knows how to mine her lines for awkward comedy and find the body language to match.

Kaitlyn Dever, left, and Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart

And after her standout supporting role in Lady Bird, the irresistibly bumptious Feldstein glows here. When Molly accidentally eavesdrops on peers gossiping about her unappealing personality, it’s the kind of scene that could get a whole audience springing up to object.

Nothing Wilde has done in her previous acting career could have tipped us off that she had this film in her, though her sweet, shambolic performance in Joe Swanberg’s 2013 dramedy Drinking Buddies probably comes closest to the tone on screen. She’s given us characters who know each other inside out and mock each other’s flaws, but also know the exact places where their friendship could splinter without tender loving care.

Her actors, much younger than she is, seem to have glued her into a zeitgeist she respects and even envies. And there are performers here — especially Broadway talent Noah Galvin and the hilarious Billie Lourd as a ubiquitous fashionista — you’ll fully expect to see popping up everywhere in the next few years. Booksmart’s a breeze, a lovable debut, and while hardly perfect, wholly welcome.