This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Comedies have really helped to shape the definition of South by Southwest over the last several years with major hits like “Bridesmaids,” “Spy,” and “The Disaster Artist” launching here to audiences full of Texas BBQ and eager to laugh. This year has seen comedy after comedy land with viewers, including “The Beach Bum,” “Long Shot,” and a pair of R-rated excursions into young life that premiered on Sunday and Monday nights. One of them feels like an instant classic.
That one is Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” the most surprisingly wonderful film of this year’s festival and a movie that people are going to fall in love with when it’s released in May. The shorthand around Austin has been ‘“Superbad” for girls’ but that only hints at this movie’s incredible charm. With star-making performances by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, "Booksmart" had me smiling from beginning to end in a way that no comedy has in a very long time. It’s smart, so very funny, and beautifully directed by Olivia Wilde, making her memorable debut behind the camera.
Feldstein and Dever play best friends Molly and Amy, respectively, on the eve of high school graduation. Molly is the smartest kid in school, and she wears that like a badge of honor, a feeling of earned superiority that she hopes to carry with her to Yale. Amy is going to take a gap year and do humanitarian work in Botswana. Molly’s world is rattled when she discovers that all of the hard-partying classmates she looks down on are going to good schools too. You mean they got to do both? Have an academic future and fun?!?! Molly and Amy vow to make up for lost time by going to a party that night hosted by the most popular kid in school. Craziness ensues along the way.
How young people balance schoolwork, social media, and having a life is a smart thematic throughline in “Booksmart,” but this is primarily a film about female friendship and the timeless truth that labels never tell the whole story. The script by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, & Katie Silberman is so consistently clever and funny, giving Feldstein and Dever a pair of beautifully well-rounded characters. Very early in “Booksmart,” we feel like we know Molly and Amy, and they become so incredibly easy to root for. Their friendship feels completely genuine, and it’s wonderful to see a movie that’s built on that foundation. Everything that works so well orbits around the love of two female teenage friends, and never in a way that mocks them or turns it into a plot device.
The other element that elevates “Booksmart” above what it could have been is the revelation that Olivia Wilde is a hell of a director. Not only is this film paced perfectly, she has both an eye and an ear that most debut filmmakers don’t possess. She won’t get the credit she deserves for the way “Booksmart” is structured, especially in a few scenes at crowded locations, where she never loses track of her characters or allows the film to feel cluttered. Everything is so perfectly calibrated. And when she allows for a visual flight of fancy, such as in a great little dance bit with Molly and a pool scene you won’t forget, she finds a way to inject what could have been a dry film visually with just enough style. SO many comedies are content to look like a sitcom. “Booksmart” unmistakably looks like a film.
Critics aren’t supposed to care about box office, but I’m going to be watching this one carefully. Comedies with female leads don’t often perform like their male counterparts, and I really want people to see this movie. It’s one that I suspect people will hold as close to their hearts as a generation does the films of John Hughes.
Less special but still pretty damn funny is Gene Stupnitzky’s “Good Boys,” which premiered to a very receptive audience on Monday night. Not unlike a live-action version of something like “Big Mouth” or “South Park,” “Good Boys” is about that very difficult age when a young man is old enough to Google porn but not quite old enough to master the childproof container lid on the vitamins. It’s a wildly raunchy film that puts f-bombs in the mouths and sex toys in the hands of sixth graders, and its non-stop desire to shock can be a bit much at times. It’s inconsistent, but also often very, very funny. It helps a great deal that all three boys do excellent comic work, especially Keith L. Williams, the co-star of “The Last Man on Earth” who nearly steals the entire film. I laughed every time he opened his mouth.
Williams plays Lucas, one of the three ‘Beanbag Boys’ with his best buds Max (Jacob Tremblay) and Thor (Brady Noon). The trio is in middle school now and time for childish things is over. This is the age kids start talking about how many sips of beer they’ve had and wonder how to kiss. Max certainly thinks about the latter with his crush Brixlee (Millie Davis), and he’s determined to go to a ‘kissing party’ that she’s attending. Getting there isn’t as easy as planned.
The best parts of “Good Boys” balance the film’s shock value with its pretty sizable heart. Lucas, Thor, and Max really are good kids with their priorities in the right place. There are funny subplots about them trying to stop people from doing drugs, being anti-bullying, and several jokes about consent—Lucas always reminds them that you always have to ask a girl before you kiss her. They’re also wildly, often hysterically confused about adult things like sex and drugs.
Several of the bits in “Good Boys”—like the gang finding sex toys and thinking they’re weapons—go on too long and comedy is so dependent on pacing. It sags here a few times just enough to allow you to question why you’re watching an 11-year-old play with anal beads. But the chemistry between the three boys and their truly ace comic timing—especially Williams—keeps bringing you back. He especially understands that complex, heady age in which a kid can both be inherently very good but also very, very bad.
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