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Indie Focus: The teen comedy refreshed in 'Booksmart'

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Depending on when you are reading this, the Cannes Film Festival will either be nearly wrapping up or just concluded. Our writers Amy Kaufman, Justin Chang and Kenneth Turan have continued to cover the festival all the way through.

Justin wrote about the much-anticipated premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood,” set in 1969 Los Angeles and starring Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and Leonardo DiCaprio, calling it “a luxuriant, sometimes lumbering ode to a bygone era of moviemaking and a singularly bold reinterpretation of a violent chapter of history. The title is practically a spoiler in itself: We are not just in the dream factory, but also within the realm of fantasy.”

Amy was at the press conference for the film at which Tarantino testily replied to a question about Robbie’s role as actress Sharon Tate with the instantly meme-able, “I just reject your hypothesis.”

Justin also wrote about Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” calling it “a decisive return to roots. It’s at once a linear, almost classically structured drama and an exploratory, intensely romantic work of art.”

Kenneth interviewed Oscar-winning Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar about his intensely emotional new film, “Pain and Glory.” (Justin wrote about the film as well.)

Kenneth also interviewed Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia about “Diego Maradona,” about the Argentinian soccer player.

The newsletter will be taking next week off. (And I will too.) Two of that week’s most exciting releases will in fact be on television/streaming. One is the long-awaited “Deadwood: The Movie” on HBO and the other is writer-director-producer Ava DuVernay’s powerful four-part miniseries “When They See Us” on Netflix. As much as we encourage going out to theaters, these are both not to be missed.

Our next event will be on Tuesday, June 4, when we show “The Dead Don’t Die” followed by a Q&A with the movie’s writer-director Jim Jarmusch and actress Chloë Sevigny. Honestly, being able to put on an event like this one is why we started the series in the first place. For info and updates, go to events.latimes.com.

Beanie Feldstein, left, and Kaitlyn Dever in a scene from the film "Booksmart," directed by Olivia Wilde.
Beanie Feldstein, left, and Kaitlyn Dever in a scene from the film "Booksmart," directed by Olivia Wilde. Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures

‘Booksmart’

The feature directing debut from actress Olivia Wilde, “Booksmart” is a lively tale of modern friendship and teen-dom about two high school seniors (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) who attempt to pack all the youthful high jinks they missed out on into one night full of adventure. Aside from star turns by Feldstein and Dever, in a cast packed with fresh young talent, Billie Lourd is a clear standout with a performance that is both wild and winsome.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “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.”

Amy Kaufman wrote about the real-life friendship that grew between Feldstein and Dever in playing close friends in the film, in part by living together during production.

On what was appealing about the movie, Feldstein said, “I remember shooting one day and thinking, ‘Holy mackerel, this is remarkable.’ Two nerdy, smart female characters leading a comedy. And they’re best friends, they’re so supportive of each other and they aren’t competitive.”

At Birth Movies Death, Britt Hayes said, “There is so much empathy for these young women and between them; some of the best moments in the film feature Amy and Molly just being each other's biggest fans and cheerleaders. Wilde has immediately established herself as an expert director, delivering a worthy successor to recent films like ‘Lady Bird’ and ‘Blockers.’ ‘Booksmart’ is a beautiful, hilarious movie with a heart every bit as formidable as its brain.”

At The Ringer, Manuela Lazic wrote, “Perhaps smoothing out the edges of heartbreak isn’t too steep a price to pay for a film so enthusiastic and acute about the willful free fall of teenhood. As portrayed by Wilde, the disappointment that Amy and Molly (and everyone else) discover at that age is exciting precisely because it is so brutal, and also transformative — a multiple-choice test without correct answers. You can’t learn about it in books, but maybe you can figure it out at the movies.”

Logan Browning, right, and Allison Williams, stars of Netflix's "The Perfection," at the London West Hollywood.
Logan Browning, right, and Allison Williams, stars of Netflix's "The Perfection," at the London West Hollywood. Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

‘The Perfection’

One of those rare movies about which the less known going in the better, “The Perfection” is an oddball hybrid horror movie. Directed by Richard Shepard, who has worked extensively in television while also creating eccentric features like “The Matador” and “Don Hemingway,” his latest stars Allison Williams and Logan Browning as cello prodigies who become locked into a most unusual dynamic.

Reviewing the film for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “What can one say about ‘The Perfection,’ a film that repeatedly turns on a dime, constantly subverting expectations, swapping subgenres and scrolling back and forth in time to reveal what was previously hidden? Is it an erotic thriller, a contagion film, a revenge movie, a slasher flick? Is it art or exploitation? It’s all of the above.”

The Times’ Sonaiya Kelley interviewed Williams and Browning about the film. Both studied cello in preparation for the movie, which proved an unexpected bonding experience for the pair. As Williams said, "I think spending so much time in prep and also learning the cello together was all we needed to make sure that there was an intimacy and a comfort. So going into whatever scene it was, whatever the dynamic was supposed to be, we already had developed a shorthand and it was just very easy to get into."

Sonaiya will also soon be publishing a separate, spoiler-filled interview with Shepard for post-viewing reading.

At The Guardian, Benjamin Lee added, “Due to its unconventional nature, there does remain an intrigue over exactly where it will go next and as a result, it’s hard to feel bored, with the upside of throwing so much at the wall being that inevitably, some of it does stick. When the film commits to its midnight movie madness, it develops a personality above the often pedestrian visuals Shepard offers up but one wonders what a different, more daring director might have done with this material.”

Jakob Dylan in a scene from "Echo in the Canyon." Credit: Greenwich Entertainment
Jakob Dylan in a scene from "Echo in the Canyon." Greenwich Entertainment

‘Echo in the Canyon’

Directed by former music executive Andrew Slater, “Echo in the Canyon” is a portrait of the Laurel Canyon music scene in 1960s Los Angeles. With Jakob Dylan as an interviewer, the movie includes footage with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas, producer Lou Adler and the last filmed interview with Tom Petty.

For The Times, Robert Abele wrote, “By keeping things short, sweet and dutifully tuneful, “Echo in the Canyon” is like the doc version of one of the period’s sonic nuggets, leaving you with a peace/love/understanding high and a desire to break out the vinyl for more of the same.”

Amy Kaufman went on a ride-along with Dylan and Slater to many of the locations form the movie for an article that will be publishing soon.

At The Wrap, Todd Gilchrist added, “there are worse things than hanging out with and listening to a who’s who of 1960s musical icons reflecting on the motivations, mechanics and mischief involved in creating some of their most famous songs. But given the seemingly unlimited volume of talent on screen and available to the filmmakers, ‘Echo in the Canyon’ slightly wastes an opportunity to showcase the multigenerational reverberations of that movement because it never settles on a strong voice and specific vision to tie together their recollections into a cohesive story.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.

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