Actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart,” is an often funny, occasionally sweet coming of age story told from the rare vantage point of young women. But while often amusing, especially during its first 30 minutes or so, the picture drags slightly during the middle section, as the filmmakers try to stuff in as many quirky sequences as possible, often slowing down the film’s pace. The picture’s momentum picks up again in the final 30 minutes.
The film’s two leads – Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) – have a nice camaraderie and are humorous and sympathetic characters, even when the picture appears to take more interest in the numerous supporting characters, some of whom are more interesting than others. Feldstein played the sidekick in 2017’s “Lady Bird,” another film acting as a directorial debut for the actress who made it. That film, in my opinion, remains the gold standard for recent movies of this sort, whereas “Booksmart,” although likable, feels more like a women-led version of “Superbad.”
As the film opens, Amy and Molly are regretting the fact that they spent four years of high school being studious and not enjoying other elements of teenage life – namely, partying. It’s not that they’re unhappy with their futures – Molly is going to Yale, while Amy will take a year off to do some sort of charity work in Botswana – as much as they’re pissed to learn that the idiots and slackers in their class also have managed to land slots at prestigious schools, and found time to live it up for the past four years.
So, the two young women decide to catch up on all they’ve missed over the course of one night. They first show up at an awkward boat party thrown by a rich kid named Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and his weirdo pal Gigi (Billie Lourd), who seems to be channeling Kate Hudson’s Penny Lane, that is, if the groupie were completely spaced out on a mind-altering drug. There’s a recurring gag regarding Gigi’s ubiquitousness that’s funny at first, but quickly loses steam. A second party is thrown by the class’s two token gay theater students – who are portrayed as what must be the most over-the-top gay youths ever portrayed on film.
But the girl’s hero’s quest is ultimately to end up at a party thrown by popular kid Nick (Mason Gooding), a dopey jock who Molly looks down upon, but is her secret crush. Amy, meanwhile, is a lesbian, but barely out of the closet. In other words, the fact that she’s gay isn’t a secret, but she hardly seems able to act on it. Throughout the course of the film, she pursues a tattooed skater girl, but ultimately winds up locked in a bathroom with someone else.
For a debut feature, Wilde shows some assurance behind the camera. “Booksmart” is often clever, mostly pretty funny and has a friendship theme that proves to be somewhat moving in the final scenes. Unfortunately, the middle section is a little all over the place. There are too many unnecessary characters – for example, the pizza delivery guy who acts like a serial killer, the teacher who wants to join the students at the party and a principal (Jason Sudeikis) who has a side job as a Lyft driver.
There are also some gags that are repeated – again, the aforementioned Gigi joke, plus another in which Molly and Amy lead the latter girl’s parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow) to believe that they are lovers – but to diminishing returns. There are also some amusingly raunchy ones – the watching of a porn video and an ongoing gag about masturbation involving a stuffed animal. So, despite its flaws, “Booksmart” mostly works. While it doesn’t reach the level of “Lady Bird,” it’s a charming coming of age tale that is still better than most of the ones that focus on immature guys. There’s a decent amount to like.