Arts and Lifestyle Wednesday Presented by The Exit Room of Lee's Summit-The Kids are All Right...Mostly

     The “coming of age” film is a Hollywood staple, with the artistic bar being set both incredibly high, or painfully low. With the stories so easily resonating with audiences whose youthful memories last a lifetime, there is the chance to create memorable films that people quote for decades, or embarrassingly and lamely miss the mark.

     For her directorial debut, Olivia Wilde has taken on the genre with “Booksmart”, and successfully so. The degree to which is the question, and for most, her debut effort has been wildly (no pun intended, maybe) praised by critics. I am probably at the low end of that spectrum with my view of the film, but I still believe it is a good effort.

     The story is contemporary, with the class of 2019 a day away from graduation at a high school in a wealthy community that appears to be in California, but that is beside the point. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends, incredibly tight, and introduced perfectly in the opening scene as Amy picks up Molly for school. They dance goofily, chat relentlessly, swap constant compliments of the other, and at least on the surface relish their nerdity. Their conversations explore all topics, often to elaborate and profane extremes.

     Both are outstanding students who have completely dedicated themselves to academic success at the chosen expense of any partying. Meanwhile, seemingly every other person at the school is completely disinterested in any sort of commitment to anything but having fun, and at best being a goofball. I have two daughters who are less than a decade removed from high school, so it’s not as if I haven’t seen the inside of one in years, but the complete anarchy at the school struck me as over the top, albeit humorous.

     The pacing of the early part of the film is ADD-frenetic, as Molly and Amy look to survive the last day of school amidst speeding skateboards, water balloons, and flying confetti. The storyline is set when Molly, who is headed to Yale, challenges a few of those she has perceived as ultra-slackers as to their future destination, after she overhears them insulting her in a one-gender bathroom. To her horror, one after another of them is headed for A-level schools as well. One female adversary will be joining her at Yale, seemingly completely rockheaded jocks are off to Stanford and Georgetown, another girl’s “fifth choice” is Harvard.

     Feeling that their dedication seems now folly, since the others have had gobs of senseless fun, she shares this dreadful development to Amy (who is headed for Africa to do humanitarian work before going to Columbia University). Molly now desperately wants to attend at least one party before graduation to at least be able to say they cleared at least one crazy hurdle.

     Feldstein’s Molly has more to say,and maybe a bit more to do than Dever’s Amy, and they are both excellent in carrying the proceedings, but Dever is absolutely brilliant in a more nuanced part. She has to react as much as act, and provides a quieter center to the film that is desperately needed. Amy has been “out” for two years but has never acted on it, despite consistent urging from Molly to pursue her crush on the delightfully goofy Ryan (Victoria Ruesga).

     There are a multitude of supporting characters, the adults all quite familiar, from Lisa Kudrow, to Will Forte, to Wilde’s fiancee Jason Sudekis, who does a lot with the small part of the school principal (and Lyft driver) Jordan Brown. The featured younger supporting players really add plenty, each taking a rather stereotypical role (gay theater enthusiast, crazy stoner girl, studly jock, rich kid desperate for friends) and running with it. Especially noteworthy is Skyler Gisondo as Jared, painfully seeking to buy friendship at every turn.

     Night comes, and a driven Molly and reluctant Amy head out fitfully to find the party of uber-jock Nick. But the location is Nick’s aunt’s house, and neither knows the address or has any connection with anyone who might know it. Multiple calamities ensue, including finding several wrong locations, the usual accidental drug trip, and a very funny Lyft ride, as they are stunned to be picked up by Principal Brown. All along they are seeing pictures on their phones of the over-the-top antics that are going on at Nick’s bash, and without anyone to tell them where to go, they turn to library research (of course) to figure out the destination.

     When it comes time to go to the “real” party, the movie does a remarkable thing. Ordinarily in many modern films, especially of this type, the final act is over the top action, or gore, or gross outs. In this case, the party itself is where the film slows down and really finds its bearings. Multiple subplots which have been set up throughout are focused on, but not always neatly wrapped up. Just about every one of the significant characters in the film has at least one fine scene to carry.

     Confrontation, optimistic romance gone wrong, and long buried truths, are adroitly explored. In the setting that would seem to be ripe for the most insanity, comes wisdom amidst quite a bit of hilarity. The teenagers might actually seem a bit too grown up at this point, which would have seemed impossible at the outset, but not to a fault.

     The film concludes in satisfying fashion without being trite, and has quite a few fine attributes, but clearly is a starmaking turn for the two leads. Feldstein will surely now be known for more than being Jonah Hill’s little sister, and Dever’s combination of cuteness and acting chops should be on display with regularity from now on.

     While in my mind not as memorable as some are touting, I found ‘Booksmart’ to be savvy and enjoyable filmmaking. Wilde will have many opportunities to improve as a director, and is off to a pretty damn good start.

Clink Scale 7.4