The "one crazy night" narrative has become a commonplace in modern comedy, and teen comedy in particular, an altogether accelerated getting of wisdom enabling young protagonists to fumble in the dark and glean a few extra life lessons before the sun comes up over the adult world. The spin Olivia Wilde puts on this pitch over the nocturnal hours that make up the actress's directorial debut Booksmart involves squaring it with the very contemporary fear of missing out. Wilde's heroines are a pair of keen scholars who realise, on the night before their graduation from high school, that their pals have had way more fun than they have over the preceding years, at no great cost to their academic progress. Leading the charge into living for the moment is the organised, generally future-focused Molly (Beanie Feldstein), keen to experience what life might be like on the other side of her planner; backing her up is the gentler Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), openly out for most of her adolescence, but yet to do so much as to kiss a girl. Many obstacles stand between this two-girl squad and their goals: low Lyft ratings, tainted strawberries, the wrong party, and a humiliation via Bluetooth that updates what happened to Jason Biggs on the Internet in American Pie some two decades ago. (And yes, we are all very old now.) Booksmart's running joke is that it's a notionally loud and lairy teen comedy centred on two teenagers who aren't really set up for partying - yet jokes aren't all the film has in its pockets.
Wilde and her all-female writing staff (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman) quickly put flesh on their bare-bones premise. In the post-Pie era, those Judd Apatow-initiated comedies (of which 2007's Superbad would be the most immediately comparable) got their kicks by throwing their characters together - literally so, in their more cacophonous moments of slapstick. Dever and Feldstein, by contrast, simply tessellate. As characters, Molly and Amy aren't just inseparable, they make total sense: the former's robustness shoring up the latter's tendency for overthinking and self-doubt. The movie often feels geared less to the mechanical generation of gags than it is to evoking a friendship between two girls slingshotting one another into the world; the affection suffuses every set-up. Wilde's touch is gentler than that of Apatow and his acolytes, and it helps to both take the edge off any fraught encounters and to sustain a more even tone. It might seem an unusual observation to make of a multiplex comedy, had we not all sat through so many multiplex comedies that looked like they'd been dragged through a hedge, but Booksmart is unusually attentive in matters of lighting, bathing even its pastier adolescents in the forgiving glow of fairylights and fireworks. The visual imagination doesn't stop there: one of the parties Molly and Amy crash turns out to be a period murder-mystery, which allows the director to fill the frame with something other than the usual red solo cups, while a sidebar involving stopmotion Barbie dolls is the closest any film since the Harold and Kumars has got to the oddball invention of "Savage" Steve Holland, the lost auteur behind such teenpics as 1985's Better Off Dead....
It's far from the plottiest of comedies, which may account for any viewer drift: there's a lot of hanging out and poking around (as teenagers are wont to engage in), and the script relies on a last-act row over a busted crush - the kind of slightly strained falling-out our romcoms once traded in - to suggest there might be anything at stake here. It's both an editorial strength and a dramatic weakness that these protagonists don't really have all that much to learn from this experience, save that, indeed, they don't really have all that much to learn, and this may be what ultimately distinguishes Booksmart from all those teen comedies centred exclusively on boys. Molly and Amy, notably more mature than their male contemporaries, are fine as they are; whenever one of them wobbles, the other has their back. The movie is a celebration, not an instruction. Still, coming as it does within a year of the similarly good-natured and sex-positive Blockers, Booksmart may leave you wondering exactly what's going on within the studio comedy. At a time when fantasy franchises are eating up resources, screens and the popular imagination, films like these would appear to offer the last space available outside the end-of-year awards corridor where American creatives might attempt something original, human and wise. If you've already outlived the kind of misadventures Wilde outlines here, Booksmart may not be enough to blow your mind, but if you're young enough, it just might. Either way, from its karaoke Alanis to its final affirmation, it makes for a pretty good time. For fullest enjoyment, take a pal.
Booksmart is now playing in cinemas nationwide.