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'Booksmart' breathes energetic new life into the rites-of-passage teen comedy

The hilarious high-school movie invites comparisons to Superbad – but it's much better, says Graeme Virtue

A raunchy comedy about two hyper-articulate teens trying to survive one crazy night of picaresque hell-raising might sound more than a little familiar.

Superbad was released in 2007 and made instant stars of its unfamiliar young cast: Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Emma Stone (OK, maybe not that gawky dude who played McLovin). It was also another big hit for industrious producer Judd Apatow, whose shaggy, freewheeling approach would influence mainstream Hollywood comedy 
for the next decade and beyond.

The rambunctious but heartfelt new high-school comedy Booksmart invites comparisons with Superbad, and not just because of their comparably crammed one-word titles. Both feature a bickering central duo in a cute but clearly co-dependent relationship. Both see their nerdy leads uncharacteristically throw caution to the wind to go in search of the ultimate party over the course of one incident-packed night. And both prominently feature fake IDs, which is appropriate since alongside all the booze, drugs and rampant hormones, these are films about adolescents trying to work out who they really are.

The real kicker, though, is that Beanie Feldstein, who plays Booksmart’s forceful straight-arrow class president Molly, is Jonah Hill’s real-life sister, and there are moments where the family resemblance is startling. In the nervy Michael Cera role as Molly’s BFF Amy is Kaitlyn Dever, previously fantastic as an orphan forced to grow up fast in the lawless backwoods world of TV drama Justified. These straight-A students have foregone the dopey dropout pleasures of high school to focus on their studies, habitually rolling their eyes at their pleasure-seeking peers. But on the last day of term – and, crucially, the night before their stuffy graduation ceremony – Molly and Amy experience a belated sense of FOMO, and set out to prove they can party with the best 
of them.

Beanie Feldstein is Jonah Hill’s real-life sister, and there are moments where the family resemblance is startling

You may be able to intuit some of the pitstops and set-pieces along the way: the getting dressed-to-impress sequence, awkward encounters with secret crushes, some unfortunate brushes with the law. But thanks to a crackling script that successfully combines highbrow references to Virginia Woolf and human rights activist Malala with some rather earthier material about masturbation methods and lesbian porn, Booksmart breathes energetic new life into the rites-of-passage teen comedy. That it was written by four women and directed by actor Olivia Wilde – veteran of medical drama House and slick but rather soulless blockbusters like Tron: Legacy and Cowboys & Aliens – might have something to do with how fresh it feels compared to other bawdy teen flicks, where bro-tastic frat-house humour generally comes as standard.

Wilde clearly realises that Feldstein and Dever are absolute dynamite together, zeroing in on their plausibly lived-in and sometimes fraught relationship to the extent that the rest of the likeable ensemble cast fades a little into the background. (Her partner Jason Sudeikis, the closest thing to an established box office draw, pops up in a small but pivotal role as a harried school principal with a secret side gig.) Where Wilde proves she has some real directing chops is in the accidental but 
mind-expanding drug trip, an inevitability in this genre and something audiences have seen countless times but executed here in a genuinely unexpected fashion that is actually rather daring.

With any luck, Booksmart will 
echo its racy forerunner in other, 
more substantive, ways – catapulting 
its gifted leads to stardom and opening 
up more opportunities for its 
behind-the-scenes creative talent. But to label it merely “the female Superbad” would be reductive. It doesn’t just equal Superbad, it surpasses it.

Booksmart is in cinemas from 
May 27

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