The paradox of high school is it was a terrible experience for just about everyone, yet most people look back on it fondly. Even without rose-colored glasses, your teenage stumbles feel nostalgic, either because high school was a safer time in your life to mess up or because a screw-up back then was way more fun than a screw-up now. Booksmart, from first-time director Olivia Wilde, is a comedy all about those low-stakes missteps, and it’s great for making them feel high-stakes.
Booksmart stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as lifelong besties Amy and Molly. The girls have devoted their high school careers to their education, and it’s paid off: Amy’s headed to Botswana after graduation to teach the locals how to make tampons, and Molly’s bound for Yale. It’s all golden until Molly finds out their rule-breaking classmates are headed for prestigious futures of their own, and desperate not to feel like she’s wasted her past four years, she ropes Amy into a take-no-prisoners night of causing trouble, for that “real high school experience.”
Cue 100 minutes of sheer delirium. Booksmart moves between set pieces so fast it’s hard to remember all its high points, but a tragic party cruise, an ill-fated Lyft ride, a botched interrogation and what can only be described as “the Barbie sequence” stand out. The pace is relentless; this is a teen-movie as a bangers-only album. Even when the words are contrived and the beats feel familiar, it still has the right energy.
Beyond its funny script, Booksmart delivers in Amy and Molly two know-able, complete characters. The girls might fall into archetypes—Amy’s timid and sensitive while Molly’s brash and socially obtuse—but they have enough quirks in their identities, passions and aspirations to feel original. Dever and Feldstein are note-perfect, too. They give the girls a gorgeous friendship, and as the night roller-coasters through its highs and lows, the setbacks, triumphs and disappointments all pass through their performances in a way that feels totally sensical. The events around the girls might be extreme, but the actors anchor everything to a true array of emotions. It makes you feel each stage of their journey that much more.
That’s central to the movie’s message: Booksmart examines how significant your mistakes feel in high school, except the movie’s reversal means the mistake is how Amy and Molly never made a mistake.
In less deft hands than Wilde’s, the girls’ pursuit of trouble would be grounds for judgment (either from a “heh, nerds!” standpoint or a “tsk tsk” standpoint), but thanks to an uncommon attention to filmmaking craft, Booksmart illustrates Amy and Molly’s conflict so completely you understand their motivations right away. Extended takes heighten the most excruciating scenes, and slow motion makes you linger with dramatic images. A killer soundtrack scores the tragedies and victories, plus the quiet moments in between, to perfection. Booksmart has style, and it leverages it in service of the girls’ feelings. It’s a lovely example of creating empathy through moviemaking, and it rubs off on you.
Otherwise, it would be easy for someone raised in a legalistic environment to view the thrust of this movie as irresponsible. Amy and Molly want to break bad in Booksmart. This whole construct, like the dudes trying to buy beer in Superbad or the girls trying to lose their virginity in Blockers, is in pursuit of a goal some Christians would deem objectionable. It’s fine if you feel that way—you don’t need to approve of, say, underage drinking to have a fun time with this movie—but Booksmart doesn’t exist to give partying a stamp of approval. It exists to show how friendships persist through multiple stages of life and through moments when friends fail one another. Even if it involves a bunch of profanity and drinking games and one totally hilarious drug trip, Booksmart’s aims are beautiful, no matter what you think of its methods.
Consider a legalistic church in contrast: These institutions have long taught young people through condescension more than on-the-level experience, and it shows. This sort of churched perspective, especially related to things like sex, drugs and partying, is often different than a biblical perspective. The church places boundaries around those things through the lens of consequences—pregnancy, death, hell—while the Bible places boundaries around them by way of grace. There’s a right and a wrong, but erring on the wrong side doesn’t mean the end-all, be-all for your worth as a person.
The Bible doesn’t let your past decisions define you. In fact, it redeems them in light of God’s faithfulness. A legalistic church tells you your stumbles condemn you; the Bible shows you how they can glorify Jesus.
High school movies like Booksmart can be terrific illustrations of the growth we experience out of our mistakes. The Superbad boys learned to differentiate. The Blockers girls defined their values apart from their parents. Everyone in The Breakfast Club chose an identity. Maybe they’re simple constructs, but high school was simple. It just didn’t feel that way at the time.
That hindsight, the one colored by grace and the awareness of growth, is actually what makes these movies so dang funny. Booksmart makes room for you to laugh at all its debaucherous chaos because you know how much it all won’t matter but you still understand how much it matters to Amy and Molly. Even if you haven’t been there, you’ve been there, and that’s how a dumb night out becomes something worth remembering.
Tyler Daswick is a senior writer at Relevant. Follow him on Twitter @tylerdaswick.