In “Booksmart,” the already-underrated teen comedy that came out over the past holiday weekend, you get a pair of high-achieving and socially awkward high school seniors reach the last day of school feeling triumphal and relieved. Molly, the hard-driving class president, is off to Yale; her bestie, Amy, has Columbia lined up via a summer detour to teach women in sub-Saharan Africa how to hand-make their own tampons. Graduation is a day away. High school was a pit of hell, true, filled with good-looking slackers of higher social standing, but at least it’s almost over.
That is until Molly learns via a bathroom confrontation that the slackers and sexpots she had claimed quiet domain over were also doing, well, fantastic. A soccer scholarship to Stanford. Another Yale kid with near-perfect SATs. One three-time grade repeater now with a coding job lined up at Google. This, for Molly, cannot stand: She still wants to be the youngest person ever nominated to the Supreme Court, but first she wants to crash the party of her excruciatingly popular school vice president Nick, throw down hard and give her valedictory the next day knowing she didn’t spend four years getting played for a chump.
Yes, this basic premise follows a proud lineage of teen flicks in which One Epic Party (often a prom) is going to change everyone’s lives. But it takes up that torch with a genuine pathos that even classics like “Superbad” and “Project X” could only aspire to. First-time director Olivia Wilde, collaborating here with Jason Sudeikis (who also plays the principal), takes a script credited to four women writers and comes out with a tight, moving comedy that feels genre-defining in the way that “Bridesmaids” scored a hostile takeover of “Hangover”-style adult buddy comedies. “Booksmart” flips the teen romp just as cannily, cramming jokes about drugs and booze and masturbation and porn and sexual gaffes into a legit coming-of-age story about love and fear and isolation and loss.
That none of the above feels forced owes to its fantastic cast, starting with the leads. Kaitlyn Dever (of FX’s “Justified”) gets first billing as Amy, just ahead of Beanie Feldstein (“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) as Molly. Their chemistry feels real from the first moments Amy pulls up to Molly’s humble, motel-style L.A. apartment building and they make a little dance party in the street. Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte play Amy’s doting cool-Christian parents, hilariously earnest in their efforts to roll with Amy’s being openly gay. Skyler Gisondo is memorable as an emotionally needy rich kid, Jessica Williams (“The Daily Show”) is a rad teacher, and everyone up and down the credits manages to inhabit a roster of weirdos and dreamers who are, for the most part, just doing their best to be kind, be appreciated, be seen, be woke and be good at what they do.
You could barely have picked a better summer for “Booksmart” to land, after a 2019 already packed with college admission scandals that showed, contra to Molly’s nightmare, that elite universities are larded with the wastrel spawn of mommies and daddies whose donations overcome their kids’ sheer mediocrity. Any kid anxiously trying to swim upcurrent knows the fix is in. The FOMO in a time of smartphones must be crippling: Here you are plowing through AP Calc while elsewhere dudes are at Nick’s karate-chopping stacks of pizza boxes and still scoring full rides to Stanford.
The tension in “Booksmart” is in Molly and Amy realizing that many of the things they worked for so hard came easily to others. It’s also about giving yourself permission to relax, and in celebrating other people for living their best lives. It feels like an old tale, maybe, but every new generation of high schoolers deserves a good telling, and it may never have been told better than Amy and Molly just trying to find their way to Nick’s damn party.