“Booksmart” beats all. Really, who could have imagined that a high- school comedy about a couple of high achievers would be the prodigy that it is? Nothing funnier, smarter, quicker or more joyous has hit the big screen in a long time. It’s an Advanced Placement course in the exuberance of youth.
The heroines are best friends. Because of their braininess, they’re misfits with a shared misapprehension that all the other kids in their senior class are perfect fits. Amy is played by Kaitlyn Dever; she’s the more conventionally endearing of the two, although, being gay, this lovely and currently lonely teen hesitates to think of herself as conventional anything. Molly, played by Beanie Feldstein, is the class valedictorian. She’s physically voluminous and resolutely straight, an old soul yearning to youthen.
The premise is simple. On the day before graduation, Molly and Amy realize to their horror that (a) everyone else has been having fun partying over the years while they’ve been buried in books, so they can get into good colleges; (b) more horrifyingly, the party animals are also getting into good colleges, and (c) even though it’s the last possible night, there’s still time for the two friends to have fun partying in high school, too. They just need to find the right party.
The whole film is a party, a movable feast of libidinous adolescents and off-center adults, plus a drug-laced interlude enacted by puppets. It moves faster than any events at Ridgemont High, and draws its energy from the principle that no one is who they seem.
The first-time director was Olivia Wilde. She’s a fine actress, so it’s no surprise that she directs her actors extremely well. Beyond that, though, she turns out to be an ambitious filmmaker with the technique to fulfill her ambitions. Like her studious heroines, she has clearly done plenty of homework, but her directorial debut doesn’t recall specific films so much as a singularly buoyant spirit—that of France’s long-ago New Wave, when filmmakers like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard made inventive little films that reveled in the possibilities of the movie medium, just as this film does does.
“Booksmart” is a high-school comedy with a graduate degree. It vibrates with exotic life forms: a rich kid who wants to design airplanes so he can use the money to produce original musicals, because enough with all the revivals; a future Yalie known as Triple A because she likes to give roadside assistance; a failure at seventh-grade math who’ll be coding for mid-six-figures at Google; a fragile beauty along the lines of Zelda Fitzgerald who is everywhere at once, though not quite anywhere. Everyone is in flux, and a flux of such intensity that it constitutes a whirligig vision of the world that all of us live in.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.