Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart (Photo: United Artists)
***1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Olivia Wilde
STARS Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein
Can we declare a moratorium on karaoke scenes in motion pictures? Just as mime scenes stopped being funny around, oh, 1985, sequences in which characters perform karaoke have long ceased providing any noticeable measure of mirth. Or at least that was my thinking until I was confronted by a karaoke scene in the new comedy Booksmart. The manner in which a character approaches his chosen tune — an Alanis Morissette hit, to be specific — results in pure comic gold.
Then again, comic gold is something found in huge quantities in Booksmart, which has been described as the female version of Superbad. That’s not entirely accurate. Just as Bridesmaids was initially tagged as a female The Hangover until it was proven to be superior thanks to an Oscar-nominated screenplay packed with more developed characters and funnier interludes, so too does Booksmart breeze past any limiting comparisons and emerge as a brainier, brawnier and better motion picture.
Directed by actress Olivia Wilde (marking her feature debut in this capacity) and written by the quartet of Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, Booksmart finds students Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, sister of Superbad co-star Jonah Hill) wrapping up their high school experience with nothing but straight A’s. Unfortunately, the “nothing” also refers to their personal lives, as the two believed that it required working 24/7 to land the colleges of their dreams. But once Molly learns that other students were able to simultaneously have fun while also getting into stellar institutions, she goes into meltdown mode, realizing she and Amy needlessly punished themselves by missing out on all social activities. With one night left before graduation, a determined Molly and a reluctant Amy decide that they’ll attend a fellow student’s house party and, by God, have some fun!
Getting to said party, though, proves to be quite the task, nearly as daunting as any of those impossible missions undertaken by Ethan Hunt. First, an overly exuberant classmate (Skyler Gisondo) steers them to his unattended shindig. Then, they find themselves at a murder-mystery dinner party hosted by two gay theater kids (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute). Other interludes include an Uber reunion with their principal (Jason Sudeikis), a bizarre encounter with a pizza delivery guy (Mike O’Brien), and a favor provided by their favorite teacher (Jessica Williams). And how does the spooky Gigi (a hilarious turn by Billie Lourd, Carrie Fisher’s daughter) manage to turn up everywhere before they do?
Whether Booksmart ends up achieving lofty status as a high school classic a la Clueless or The Breakfast Club obviously won’t be determined for quite some time, but for those seeking a worthy movie in a largely parched summer season, this is nothing short of an immediate godsend. Far more inclusive than Superbad or, really, pretty much every picture of this type — for starters, the hetero nature of this sub-genre is tossed out the window when it’s revealed that Amy is a lesbian who’s attracted to a gawky skateboarder (Victoria Ruesga) — it turns out to be incredibly generous in spirit. There are the requisite mean girls and mean boys, but the movie itself isn’t nasty or condescending, choosing instead to infuse all its characters (even the supposedly malicious ones) with recognizable — and appreciable — traits.
The laughs in Booksmart are plentiful, but there are also some moments that serve as reminders (as if adults wanted any!) of the emotional landmines that blanket the high school landscape. As for Dever and Feldstein, they’re peerless in their parts, working so perfectly in tandem that one wonders if the actresses were raised together in the same crib since an early age. Like every other aspect of the film, they pass with flying colors.