SXSW Review: Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut ‘BOOKSMART’ drops some hilarious, heartfelt knowledge

Chance Maggard // Film Critic

BOOKSMART

Not rated, 105 minutes.
Director: Olivia Wilde
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Diana Silvers, Eduardo Franco, Jessica Williams, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte

AUSTIN – As I waited in line for films that preceded its world premiere at South by Southwest 2019, I couldn’t help overhearing a few festival-goers writing off BOOKSMART as something we have all seen before. (I distinctly recall hearing the mock-title “Superbadder” and possibly the sound of a patted back.) While it’s tough to admit that I can see where they may have gotten that impression without actually watching the film, I sincerely hope that those people have made their way to a screening by now. I also sincerely hope that, if they did, they were paying attention.

The directorial debut from Olive Wilde (actor in TRON and LIFE ITSELF) follows two straight-laced best friends, Molly (Beanie Feldstein of LADY BIRD) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever of BEAUTIFUL BOY and SHORT TERM 12), as they make a last-ditch effort to cram four years of the typically formative reckless abandon into the night before their graduation. Although we do see the two young women grapple with typical coming-of-age story trials like social blunders, questioning (or not questioning) authoritative figures, awkward sexual experiences, and drug experimentation, Wilde walks the characters (and the audience) through the situations in a way that reminds us that a filmmaker doesn’t have to break new ground or avoid alluding to previous films to deliver a strong message that feels fresh.

The story maintains balance and honesty while approaching the undoubtedly (and unfortunately) difficult feat of creating a widely accessible, female-fronted tale of maturation without resorting to either taking a tired “bromancey” story and simply swapping out female characters for the bros in the interest of any sort of safety, or risking insulting audiences by constantly placing any of the characters in overtly gender-specific roles and situations in order to make a point. Wilde unapologetically expects us to check our expectations of what this movie should be at the door and, in turn, delivers a wildly funny and sincere picture of what it looks like to grow up in 2019.

I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to see this film to resist the urge to make any simple comparisons. I hope it is approached it with the same openness that we all hold while sitting down to watch our current favorite “buddy comedies” for the first and tenth times. Otherwise, not only will they miss out on an opportunity to throw a new story into their “rewatch” rotation, but they’ll also lose sight of what makes this experience so great.

While infinitely enjoyable, BOOKSMART is also an important, heartfelt film that not only reminds adults of what it meant to begin becoming our own person but offers a refreshingly in-tune glance of what it means for young people today.

Grade: A

BOOKSMART premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX, on March 10, 2019. Annapurna Pictures is to release the film nationwide on May 24, 2019.

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