The Best Comedy of the Year So Far Is ‘Booksmart’

Courtesy of United Artists and Annapurna Pictures
Courtesy of United Artists and Annapurna Pictures

Megan Ellison’s struggling film distributor Annapurna Pictures sure is about to get a boost. Booksmart is the best comedy I’ve seen this year so far. It comes at a time where audiences desperately need an excellent low-budget but high-talent R-rated comedy to serve as counterprogramming to studio tentpole blockbuster films. It’s the kind of fast, intelligent, delightful, and old-fashioned screwball comedy that we don’t see as much as we should anymore. At the same time, it’s a coming-of-age movie that has a lot of progressive and insightful things to say about the world around it.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are two overachievers who go to school on the morning of their last day of high school. The duo has been best friends since they were children. As the curtain comes down on their high school days, they realize that their academic dreams stopped them from having any fun, and everyone around them that partied through high school still somehow got into the same Ivy League schools they did. The two friends make it their mission to show their senior class how fun they are on the eve of graduation.

Beanie Feldstein is an absolute revelation. She’s Jonah Hill’s little sister, and I would say she’s better than him. She has better comedic timing and a force to her personality that makes her extremely watchable. Previously seen in supporting roles for Neighbors 2 and Lady Bird, this is her first lead work in film. I’m so pleased to see her in a part like this that excitingly allows her freak flag to fly.

Kaitlyn Dever, like Feldstein, is not exactly an unknown either. She’s had supporting roles in movies like Beautiful Boy, Short Term 12 and the vastly underrated Men, Women and Children, but this is the first time she’s really been first on the call sheet, and she is spectacular. Her character is so specific and hilarious and real, and Dever is playing this spectacularly. There is so much that’s revealed about these two characters throughout this film, you leave the theater hoping for a sequel, but also that these two actresses never stop working together.

Billie Lourd, who has been on Scream Queens and American Horror Story, plays Gigi, a spoiled party girl who pops in and out of the story at inconvenient times, and she totally steals the show. Lourd is another actress I’ve been quietly rooting for, and I’m so glad she’s finally hit her stride because this particular brand of comedy is totally her sweet spot. Noah Galvin of The Real O’Neals and Skyler Gisondo of the excellent Santa Clarita Diet, are also hilarious in supporting roles. Also, we have comedy vets Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, and Will Forte popping up, who are always great.

On paper, this looks like the feminist equivalent of Superbad, but it’s so much more than that. This is the directorial debut for Olivia Wilde, and she’s doing a lot of exciting work cinematically. Like the best teen coming-of-age movies, there’s a lot of genius that seemingly comes out of nowhere. We have the weird animated bit and the musical number and the in-jokes the film makes with itself. It’s an aggressively funny, queer and feminist take on the R-rated comedy, and it is a total blast.

Having said that, while the movie is doing a lot to support underrepresented groups in film, it never wants a pat on the back for it, and it’s never in your face about how progressive it is. There is not a single messy thing about it, and Olivia Wilde proves herself to be a total force behind the camera. A particular scene involving the way a crucial moment in a swimming pool plays out is a strong case for a best director Oscar nomination. This is a self-aware comedy that’s equally broad and nuanced. It’s made with so much style and precision, Wilde immediately finds herself in Greta Gerwig territory.

The script by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman is tight and snappy, and it pulls off a tricky balance of broad hilarity and genuine heart that isn’t typically done this well. It’s implied that specific character beats and moments might be semi-autobiographical, just because of the specificity of it. After standing ovations at SXSW, Booksmart jumps headfirst into the crowded summer movie season in a few weeks. It is absolutely worth the viewer’s time and money. It’s both indie darling with something on its mind and the raunchy crowd-pleaser. Combined with two star-making performances by Feldstein and Dever, as well as a slew of talented supporting players, Booksmart is the first comedy of the year that could end up on my top ten of the year list.

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