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In Booksmart, it's revenge of the girl nerds

BOOKSMART
directed by Olivia Wilde

The misadventures of two studious BFFs create a charming high-school comedy.

Freaks, geeks, jocks, betas, pretty girls, pretty boys, theatre-club kids and debate nerds are enshrined in popular culture thanks to American high-school films, starting in the 1980s with the likes of Fast Times At Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, and the decades since delivering Dazed and Confused, Mean Girls, Superbad and The Edge of Seventeen, among the genre’s more memorable offerings.

The endearingly dorky stars of Booksmart fall firmly into the nerd/teacher’s pet category. Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12) and inseparable best friend Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) are straight-A types with singular ambitions and little tolerance for japes or rule breaking. But, on the last day of school, they discover that their classmates, whom they thought to be goofs and no-hopers, are attending the same prestigious universities. “You guys don’t even care about school,” Molly exclaims incredulously. “No,” says one girl, “we just don’t care only about school.”

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Thus, a resolution: better to have those japes and break those rules now before time runs out. Amy, ever cautious, asks, “What if we get in trouble?” To which Molly replies swiftly: “We’re too smart for that.” Fair enough. What follows is nocturnal misadventure of delightfully thwarted ambitions: a hunt for a mythical “cool” party that keeps taking left turns into the strange, the surreal and the fantastical.

Making her feature directorial debut, Olivia Wilde (House), and her quartet of female writers, offers a sharp, charming, occasionally hilarious riposte to the genre’s usual macho beer-soaked tropes. Here, each archetype is inverted: the snob is a secret sentimentalist, the jock a charmer.

Not that there aren’t betrayals – the coming-of-age tale is always bittersweet. If there’s one thing that shines brightest from the film – other than Wilde’s impressive directing – it’s the performances of Dever and Feldstein. It takes a lot to balance comedy and pathos, and a touching pang of confrontation and loss sneaks in between their bawdy jokes. Amy and Molly may have mapped out their lives with the confidence that only comes from adolescence, but there will always be lessons that school can never teach.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

Universal Pictures NZ

This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.