No one in Olivia Wilde’s stunner of a directorial debut - Booksmart - is a cliché. Like both Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird two years ago and Bo Burnham’s electric Eighth Grade last year, Booksmart is acutely aware that it is telling a story about people, not archetypes. Unlike those two films, however, Wilde is willing to experiment visually to extraordinary effect. (Well, that’s not totally fair to the other films, especially since Burnham went to such great lengths to render the visceral terror of middle school in widescreen glory). But Wilde uses such varied and frequently spectacular visual palettes that it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity of it all. One moment of stop-motion, hallucinatory hilarity stands out as one of the film’s many, many peaks. Wherever you look - and there’s a lot to look at, almost all of it beautifully inventive - Wilde and her Director of Photography Jason McCormick seem to be eager to shatter the expectation that comedies (particularly coming-of-age comedies) must be visually sterile. They employ a variety of methods, including smart pans to reveal deflating realizations, smash-cuts to punchy, funny, but never clichéd effect, and a gorgeous long-take that suffocates with the horror of mortal embarrassment.
None of this cinematic virtuosity would work, however, if the central duo of Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) weren’t so compellingly charismatic. Their genuine chemistry seems like the kind of bond people can only achieve after several years together. And mercifully, when Wilde does introduce conflict into the script, it isn’t over the expected cliché of the romantic interest - though there is a wonderfully unexpected twist she introduces to that trope - but rather over a far more believable and humanizing impulse: discomfort. Graduating high school, or being in high school for that matter, is an incredibly uncomfortable time. Wilde’s central premise here: two girls realize that, after spending their four years of high school studiously stuffing their resumés, they did not take the time to enjoy that relatively responsibility-free time, is pretty bog-standard for high school-based stories. However, her twist on it - the people who did take the time to enjoy it did just as well in school - helps provide a clever jumping-off point. It also serves as the special sauce to this film’s magic recipe: Wilde’s goal seems not to be merely inverting the classic teen comedy, but rather to humanize the archetypes; to demystify the classic American myth of young adulthood.
Like Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (or any Linklater film for that matter), there’s a profound naturalism to the dialogue here. And despite the seemingly improvisational intimacy in the film’s performances, the film’s tone seems largely a direct product of Wilde’s supremely confident authorship, which only speaks greater volumes of her immense talent behind the camera (and pen). Wilde’s greatest insight here is that, fundamentally, adults and high-schoolers don’t speak all that differently. They are, at the end of the day, concerned with the same insecurities and the same existential hopes (a desire to be welcome, to be honest with others about who they truly are, and to be happy with where they are and with where they are going). The fact that the script - and, more vitally, the characters - knows this is one of the many keys to Booksmart’s spectacular success.
Stitching this remarkable vision together is the brilliantly lively soundtrack. It ebbs and flows naturally, punctuating some utterly euphoric moments and, again, like Eighth Grade last year, it helps tell the story without overpowering any of the images or characters on display. Wilde’s taste here is eclectic enough to fit the film’s varied emotional beats while simultaneously never giving us whiplash or auditory dissonance. It’s a cross-section, not of merely contemporary hits, but of songs that speak to the moment or emotion expressed. The songs, universally, hit just the right note to keep the film’s tight 105-minute runtime feel fluid and perfectly-paced.
Booksmart is, in many ways, the apotheosis of the teen comedy form: it’s both sharply written and utterly visually compelling. That’s a hilariously pretentious statement to describe a supremely un-pretentious film. But it’s true nevertheless. It extends its humanizing lens to all of its characters and deconstructs the monolithic character clichés of the subgenre. And, more than anything, it just looks good; a rarity and a treasure in comedies and film in general.