The Great American High School Movie is always the same. And that is actually just fine.
The music and the wardrobe change, and gender equality has evolved over the years. But there’s something reassuring about the fact that “Booksmart” is a familiar collection of jokes and anxieties and regrets, with long party scenes that take place across — of course — the last night of senior year.
Freshened up with snappy rhythm and two engaging lead performances, the formula still works like a charm. The Class of 2019 is lucky to have this as their valedictory statement.
On the final day of school, two straight-A high-achievers realize their error: They’ve worked so hard at excelling at academics, they never got around to partying. That will change tonight.
BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein, from “Ladybird”) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, “Detroit”) are the party-seekers, and their night-long attempt to have fun becomes a very entertaining, occasionally surreal odyssey. This includes a puppet sequence that should not be spoiled here.
Molly, the school valedictorian, is a bossypants who won’t admit she has a crush on a boy she knows is wrong for her. The reserved Amy likes a female classmate, but isn’t sure the girl is gay, which is how she ends up asking, “Would you be scared to go to Uganda?” as a sounding-out line.
The supporting cast has a few familiar faces: Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s unfailingly supportive parents, ex-“Daily Show” regular Jessica Williams as a simpatico teacher and Jason Sudeikis as the school principal. But mostly it’s populated by up-and-coming actors — even if, per the usual tradition for high school movies, a lot of these actors look suspiciously old to be playing teens.
Standouts include Skylar Gisondo and Billie Lourd (that’s Carrie Fisher’s daughter) as particularly eccentric classmates, Molly Gordon and Diana Silvers as weirdly hostile members of the In Crowd and Mason Gooding as the school’s hunky dunce.
“Booksmart” is the directing debut of the actress Olivia Wilde, who displays a deft touch with comic timing. A few ambitious ideas pay off, like a big revelation that comes while Amy is submerged in a swimming pool, or a long-take showdown that finally cracks the bond between Molly and Amy.
There’s also a nutty one-off scene involving a pizza-delivery man (Mike O’Brien) that gets a glorious punchline much later in the film. Wilde keeps the film on track but shrewdly makes room for these weird little syncopated diversions.
The movie’s R-rated enough to be credible as a depiction of the way real people talk, but not too R-rated, if you know what I mean — there’s no raunch for its own sake, unlike the Seth Rogen school of modern comedy. The film’s final line, an exuberant F-bomb, is one of the sweetest moments of the movie year.
Is “Booksmart” substantially different from classics like “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless”? Nope. Will it become a classic of that genre anyway? You better effing believe it.
“Booksmart” (4 stars)
A new classic of the high-school genre, this comedy has two engaging lead performances and a snappy comic rhythm. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play academic high-achievers who realize they need to attend one party before senior year is over; chaos ensues. Director Olivia Wilde, who displays a deft touch with the quick-moving material.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter