For anyone who spent their high-school years studying hard, racking up extracurriculars, avoiding parties and sneering at the popular kids who were clearly destined to peak in 12th grade — I’m not thinking of anyone in particular, of course — the opening scenes of “Booksmart” will play out with a strangely potent, slow-dawning horror.
On the last day of high school, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a Yale-bound senior who dreams of becoming the nation’s youngest Supreme Court justice, learns that not all her classmates were the losers and burnouts she’d thought (and hoped) they were. Some of them, like her, are headed for Ivy League schools; another has landed a job coding for Google. But unlike Molly and her similarly overachieving best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), they were cool enough not to make a big deal of it, and to have other interests along the way: drinking, partying, having sex, the usual.
Molly and Amy’s realization that they aren’t the only school standouts — that from a certain perspective, their high-school years have been woefully underachieved — provides the first big jolt in this wickedly clever and furiously paced comedy. It isn’t the last. Determined to make up for lost time before they graduate, Molly and Amy set off in search of a year-end party thrown by Nick (Mason Gooding), the popular vice president of their senior class. A long night of wrong turns, false moves and one painful bout of coitus interruptus ensues.
That may sound like the stuff of a familiar buddy-comedy template. But “Booksmart,” directed with terrific verve by actress-turned-filmmaker Olivia Wilde from a sharp script by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, keeps rattling off surprise after surprise. Not all of them work, to be sure, though some of them actually improve with repetition. (Keep your eye on Molly’s classmate Gigi, played by the comic firecracker Billie Lourd.) But each twist is engineered to remind you — sometimes with a tender touch, sometimes with a forceful wallop — that people are rarely as mean, shallow or clueless as the rumor mill would have you believe.
That’s a lovely sentiment for a movie about the Darwinian shark tank called high school. It’s also an inspiring, unfashionably optimistic thought for the species in general. “Booksmart” leaves you feeling unaccountably hopeful for the state of humanity — and the state of American screen comedy too. Some of that hope stems from the fact that the movie’s director, four screenwriters and two stars are all women, a talent combination that’s rarer than it should be and that should lay waste to the last pathetic vestiges of the “can women be funny” debate. It probably won’t, of course. No one who had any doubt to begin with is likely to be convinced by evidence to the contrary.
Still, there is plenty of evidence here if you want it. Molly and Amy are the most entertaining duo to grace a high-school comedy in some time, not least because they are also the most plausible. They dish and rant with the practiced routine and whip-smart banter of longtime besties, poking fun at each other’s quirks, boosting each other’s egos and agonizing over their sexual frustrations.
For Amy, who came out as a lesbian not too long ago, that involves her current crush on an adorably spacey classmate named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). The chance of a pre-graduation hook-up turns out to be one of the chief enticements of Nick’s party. And so off they go, first ducking out the door before Amy’s super-sweet parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) can protest, then enduring a couple of rideshares from hell and at one point imbibing a substance that sends the movie into surreal, hallucinatory terrain.
Feldstein, whose brother Jonah Hill starred in “Superbad,” honors his comic legacy — and more important, forges her own — by taking on the equivalent role here as the more determined and outspoken of the two. Molly often tries to pressure the quieter, more prudent Amy into doing something she’d rather not, and the excellent Dever, in a touching performance that feels both open and guarded, locates telling flickers of resentment and anxiety beneath the bubbly, chattery surface.
The two of them are complex, fully individuated young women in a sea of high-school types, some of them vivid and specific enough to call out for an update to the usual “Breakfast Club” taxonomy. There’s Jared (Skyler Gisondo), the rich kid trying way too hard to make new friends. There are the hardcore theater geeks (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute) who turn every scene into an opportunity for snark, and the girl (Molly Gordon) with the slut-shaming nickname. There’s the hip teacher (Jessica Williams) and the dorky principal (Jason Sudeikis). I already mentioned Gigi, but she’s worth mentioning again and again.
They may begin as seemingly one-dimensional types, but the achievement of “Booksmart” is that, without compromising its first and foremost obligation to be funny, it also turns them into plausible, recognizable human beings. Behind this movie’s sharply satirical teeth is a sincere reminder of that maxim to be kind to others, because you never know what they may be going through.
Sometimes you don’t know what even your best friend is going through, as the story makes clear in one stomach-clutching emotional high point, shot in a single take, that stops the laughs dead. It’s an impressive technical feat, but also a moment of deep, generous feeling. It gives overachievement a good name.
Rating: R, for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking — all involving teens
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: In general reason