Film Review: ‘Booksmart’: Hilarious High School Movie Borrows Heavily and Boils Cultural Frog

BY Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a New York professional actor, working in theater, commercials, and soap operas. He has a classical theater training and a BA in philosophy from Williams College. As a voice actor, he recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook, “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World.” Mark's professors suggested he become a professional writer. He became a professional actor instead. Now he writes professionally about acting. In the movies.
May 29, 2019 Updated: June 2, 2019

R | 1h 42min | Comedy | 24 May 2019 (USA)

Jason Sudeikis, comedic-everyman actor, has often been teased about dating screen goddess Olivia Wilde. One interviewer said words to the effect of: You know you’re “punching above your weight,” right? (Like, how does a guy who looks like you date a goddess who looks like her?)

High school principle
Jason Sudeikis stars as Principal Brown in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

Well, that goddess has now aced her directorial debut, with one of the funniest high school movies ever. And there’s your answer: Jason and Olivia are funny-people soulmates. Boo-yah. Good on ya, Jason. I wish I were you.

Olivia Wilde with camera
Olivia Wilde on the set of her directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)


Is “Booksmart” the greatest high school movie of all time? The G.O.A.T., maybe? No, but it’s definitely in the top 20. Maybe the top 10. It’s heavily influenced by many of the greatest.

It borrows its it-all-happened-during-one-night time frame from “American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused,” some soundtrack concepts from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and one of the lead characters is more than a little bit related to Cher from “Clueless.”

Throw in the fact that actress Beanie Feldstein playing said character, Molly, is “Superbad” star Jonah Hill’s little sister. (“Superbad” is also a high school movie, with roughly the same theme as “Booksmart”: Unpopular high school kids try to party hard at the last minute, except it’s a male version.)

Also, Molly’s best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) is a Jennifer-Jason-Leigh-from-“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” lookalike, and that’s a whole sack full of high-school-movie tribute going on right there.

It starts off as a bit of a comeuppance tale; über-nerd class president Molly and her equally brilliant-geek bestie Amy are kind of mean girls (another high school movie) when it comes to lording it over less intelligent classmates.

Two girls and high school lockers
Beanie Feldstein (L) stars as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

They are brainiac nerd-geeks to the max. Modern high school movies have a new twist on nerd-dom: Nerds know their worth now, and it translates into a modicum of coolness. In the 1970s, you didn’t get nerds loudly and publicly flaunting their brain prowess and shaming jocks. In the ’70s, nerds came in one package—the Napoleon Dynamite variety, and this variety got duct taped to lockers and wedgied profusely. Which probably still happens today, directly following any jock-shaming.

Anyway, during the time-honored high school scene of sitting on the toilet and hearing yourself get dissed, Molly, to her horror, discovers that all the cool kids she thought were her inferiors are just as smart, and one is actually going to the same Ivy League institution of higher learning that she is. Oops.

You see, Molly, as class president, had issued a decree that there should be no talking about who was going to which college, because she didn’t want to constantly make her inferiors feel, well, inferior. Turns out they were just as intelligent—and had actual fun in high school, into the bargain.

As you can imagine, this kicks off an existential crisis. Who are Molly and Amy if all their hard work and sacrifice doesn’t actually make them superior? What if all it made them was inferior, because all the other kids effortlessly aced college entrance exams while partying, skateboarding, scoring touchdowns, and binge drinking?

Skateboarder with fire extinguisher
Nico Hiraga stars as Tanner in “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

The situation needs to be remedied immediately. They can’t be the same as everyone else, except that they had no fun. They gotta party, man. And there’s only one night left to do it in!

And, by the way, this is the same scene that plays out with the VW bug-driving geek squad in “Dazed and Confused,” where Mike (Adam Goldberg) says, “What everybody in this car needs is some good ol’ worthwhile visceral experience,” and they all resolve to screw up their courage and go to the cool kid’s party.

The difference in “Booksmart” is that the party is extremely elusive in terms of them locating its location. It’s a whole saga unto itself: Molly and Amy end up at a different party, on a yacht thrown by an even bigger loser than themselves. (There’s nobody there except his insane girlfriend.) They hail a Lyft, only to find their moonlighting principal driving it.

Furthermore, they try to stick up a pizza-delivery guy (who may or may not be an actual serial killer), and they get sneakily “dosed” by said insane girlfriend, a la Timothy Olyphant’s character dosing Emile Hirsch’s character with ecstasy in “The Girl Next Door” (another high school movie). Director Wilde played a high school party girl in that movie, by the way. So now that’s eight high school movie influences I count.

Will they find the party? Will they drink? Will they jump in the pool? Will they puke? Will they do sexual things? It’s rated R, so probably all of the above.

parents made celebration dinner
Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte star as Amy’s doting parents, Doug and Charmaine, in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

A Well-Defined Cast of Characters

It’s the outstanding side characters that make high school movies so fun, which is usually why the unknown actors in these movies tend to go on to have outstanding acting careers.

Here, we’ve got the crew of characters who are flamboyant wannabe-in-showbiz kids: the über-dramatic, fur-wearing, insane-girlfriend rich girl (Billie Lourd), who pops up everywhere, and her unsinkable but lovable, tries-too-hard, party-on-a-yacht-throwing boyfriend, Jared (Skyler Gisondo).

And there are a couple of excellent teacher roles.

two girls one with tiara
Billie Lourd (L) stars as Gigi and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

But the two leads own the movie. They’ve got a lived-in, besties-since-third-grade type of language all their own, including the hilarious need to just break into not-particularly-cool, go-to-hell dances, while attempting to out-compliment each other. 

It’s 2019

This is definitely an update as to the current cultural goings-on of high school, which it shares with “Clueless” in the same way that that movie nailed its own particular time period.

American-Mexican student with long hair
Eduardo Franco (L, standing) as Theo and Molly Gordon (hand raised) as Triple A in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

As to whether it’s an upgrade, in terms of, you know, have high school kids evolved? Like, ethically? Like, morally? Questionable. Like, seriously questionable. Kids definitely know how to have more fun these days. But they’ve also got unlimited access to porn and drugs, as witnessed by the hilarious Lyft scene where the principal accidentally puts a porn scene that the girls are “researching,” on speakerphone.

The movie celebrates challenging heteronormality, and while that’s a current thing, it also celebrates some teacher/student consensual yet statutory rape. Are these a good thing? Don’t we have the moral equivalent of the boiling frog going on here? It’s funny, so … normalize it?

African-American highschool teacher
Jessica Williams stars as Miss Fine in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

Seems like we’re all cheerfully going to hell in a handbasket. If this keeps up, the massive skewed-ness of our culture from its original moral foundations will eventually cause an implosion and need rectification. That’s a cosmic law. We wring our hands and bemoan the devastating effect that a film like 1995’s “Kids” had on our children’s morals, but then we just quickly get used to it and feel it’s normal. It’s not normal. It’s most definitely deleterious.

What the film does right, besides be very funny, is celebrate friendship, to music that’s highly reminiscent of that “Bow! Bow!” Ferris Bueller soundtrack.

2 girls driving to graduation
Beanie Feldstein (L) stars as Molly and Kaitlyn Dever as Amy in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, “Booksmart.” (Francois Duhamel/Annapurna pictures, LLC)

Director: Olivia Wilde
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jason Sudeikis, Noah Galvin, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Mason Gooding, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Release Date: 24 May
Rated 4.5 stars out of 5 for humor/nostalgia/fun
Rated 1 star out of 5 for boiling the cultural frog some more

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