The Screening Room | Familiar but confident 'Booksmart' a wise commentary


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Tell me if you've heard this one before: Two high-schoolers are intent on finding a party that all of their peers are going to. Unfortunately, they don't have the address and in trying to find it, they get caught up in one outlandish situation after another. Ultimately, they get to the soiree and come to realize that attending it wasn't worth the trouble. Excessive drinking, drug use and teenage sex occur throughout the night, during which the two friends, though a misunderstanding or three, come to know and care for each other more than they did before.

2007's "Superbad" comes immediately to mind, as do many, many others. Add Olivia Wilde's "Booksmart" to the list, as it, too, chronicles the misadventures of two likable teens. And while it scores no points where originality is concerned, the fact that its two protagonists are self-assured, overachieving young women does.

It may seem like a simple and obvious wrinkle to the formula, yet this new perspective yields a bounty of fresh insights regarding what today's teenage girls are dealing with, making the film not simply timely but also wicked smart.

During their high school years, best friends Molly and Amy (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, respectively) have done everything right. They haven't dated, never socialized with their peers, have spent their nights studying or watching documentaries rather than partying and have been solely focused on getting into their top college of choice. Problem is, Molly finds out that the classmates who she's considered irresponsible and immature are actually going to elite colleges as well, which infuriates her to no end.

Fueled by a sense of cataclysmic injustice only a teenager can foster, she decides that she and Amy are going to pack a whole four years worth of screwing around into one night, the sole goal being to get to her secret crush Nick's (Mason Gooding) party, where all sorts of hijinks are sure to take place.

And with this, the familiar wayward journey into the night begins. One of the more refreshing things about the movie is that our heroines are more than prepared for anything that happens. Yes, they are surprised at times, but Molly and Amy are not victims. These are smart young ladies who are prepared for anything that's thrown at them, unlike their "Superbad" counterparts, who are no strangers to flailing about in a panic when curveballs come their way.

That they are smarter and more capable than most everyone they meet generates a great many comic moments, as do the awkward scenes when they confront their crushes, which are replete with humor and heartache. Feldstein and Dever are a delight throughout. The former is brazen, confident and assured while the latter, though not a wallflower, hesitates to stand up for herself. This is a problem that's rectified by the end, as she finds her voice as well as the power that comes from sticking up for yourself. Amy's journey is one all teen girls should see, as it is one of quiet empowerment that should be emulated.

To be sure, there are problems with the script. There are too many convenient coincidences for comfort, at least two major sequences are so outlandish they're hard to believe, and — well, it's not all that original. Yet "Booksmart" is worth seeing if for nothing else the scenes in which Molly and Amy gleefully validate one another, not simply with verbal compliments but also with acts of loyalty. This is the sort of girl power our society is sorely lacking and needs more of, contained in a movie that's vital and timely in a way so many teen comedies are not.

'Booksmart' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Jessica Williams, Mason Gooding, Skyler Gisondo, Molly Gordon, Diana Silvers and Billie Lourd.

Directed by Olivia Wilde; produced by Jessica Elbaum and Megan Ellison; screenplay by Susanna Fogel and Emily Halpern.

An Annapurna Pictures Films release. 102 minutes. Rated R (language and teen drug and alcohol use). At the AMC Champaign 13, AMC Danville Village Mall 6, Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

'Red Joan' a tepid take on Russian espionage (★★1/2 out of four). Trevor Nunn's film tells the tale of Melita Norwood, a Briton who confessed in 1999 to spying for the Soviets for more than 30 years during the Cold War era while serving as a secretary for a department head at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association.

Underestimated and overlooked because she was a woman, Norwood was able to quietly help the USSR keep pace during the nuclear arms race, finally stopping her work in 1972. The only reason she was found out was because secret documents had been turned over to the British government after the fall of Soviet Union\.

As you might expect, Nunn's film compresses time and takes great license with the facts. We've come to accept this where "based on a true story" films are concerned, but what's odd about this effort is that despite the fascinating nature of this yarn, it comes off as pedestrian at best, dull at worst.

The script by Lindsay Shapero employs a flashback structure as we see Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) — the film's Norwood — watch the British Secret Service dredge up her past as they investigate.

This triggers a series of memories that take the viewer back to World War II-era London, where we see the younger Stanley (Sophie Cookson) ready to take on the world. She's an eager student and brilliant scientist but becomes distracted by political activist Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore). He's handsome and charismatic, and Stanley soon finds herself sharing her bed with him and becoming naively swayed by his impassioned and fiery rhetoric.

Her intelligence does not go overlooked, as she finds herself named to the British research division dedicated to building the atomic bomb, which allows her access to key pieces of research that she passes to her Russian contacts over the course of the next two decades.

Nunn's direction is uninspired and bland, while the pace he assumes in telling this story borders on tedious. Shapero's script is nothing more than serviceable, and while the spot-on production details effectively take the viewer back 70 years, that's simply not enough to suck us in.

As is expected, Dench is good in what is a key supporting role, while Cookson takes advantage of her far meatier part. She takes Stanley from being a young, idealistic woman to one who comes to rue the compromises she's made. There's a passion in Cookson's turn that the film lacks, and while she does her best, she simply can't provide the spark to make "Red Joan" anything but fairly serviceable.

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