In Olivia Wilde's feature directorial debut, high schools are like the interior of an atom, with closely packed students bumping and crashing like careening protons, sending papers and sprays of confetti flying in all directions. It's chaotic, frenetic, almost dangerous, especially now, on the last days of school before summer graduation with college beckoning.
It's also emotionally battering. As the class valedictorian, Molly (Beanie Feldstein), sits in a coed lavatory (notably, their high school is situated in Southern California), correcting the grammar on a line of graffiti, a trio of students start talking disparagingly about her, not realizing she's there. Not one to be cowed, Molly leaves the stall and goes to wash her hands with dignity, taking the opportunity to point out to them while they were running around, "having fun" she was working really hard with her best friend, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), and earning her way into Yale.
90 Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien, Mason Gooding, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Billie Lourd, Molly Gordon, Nico Hiraga
Director: Olivia Wilde
Rating: R, for strong sexual content and language throughout, drug use and drinking — all involving teenagers
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Burn! Problem is, it turns out, Tanner (Nico Hiraga) is going to Stanford on a soccer scholarship, Theo (Eduardo Franco) is skipping college to start coding at Google, and, most egregiously, a girl known as Triple A (Molly Gordon), will be joining her in New Haven.
Her thunder completely stolen, Molly slinks out of the bathroom, and soon comes to the hard realization that her and Amy's plan to avoid the party scene in favor of working hard hasn't paid off in the self-satisfying ways she had hoped. Instead of standing out with her academic achievements, she and her inseparable best friend have just missed out on all the fun of high school.
Determined to enjoy their last night before graduation with, in Molly's erudite words, a "seminal fun anecdote," and wanting to "change the narrative" of their high school careers, she insists that they go to that night's rager at the aunt's house of a boy named Nick (Mason Gooding), one of the school cutie pies, whom she secretly has a crush on. Amy, infatuated with a cool skater girl named Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) who also promises to be at the shindig, agrees, and the two, who have never been in trouble in their lives, lie to Amy's parents (Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow), get dressed up in near-matching jumpsuits, and light out for the party. Trouble is, neither one of them knows the address.
You can see where a lot of this is going, of course: The girls will stumble, and bumble their way around L.A. trying to find this party, running into various other weirdos from their school and elsewhere on the way to their goal, only to get there and be disappointed with what they eventually find.
In many ways, it's quite obviously a feminist, gay-positive counterpoint to Superbad, a teen film from 2007, in which best friends Michael Cera and Jonah Hill ... go to a raging party for adventure and sex, only to realize what they most adore is their friendship.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and Wilde, working from a script by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman, creates a fricative bond between the two young women that feels genuine -- they are each other's biggest and most supportive fans. Dever, who was excellent as a young, streetwise girl in the TV show Justified, is particularly strong, and her chemistry with Feldstein is so palpable it raises the stakes for both characters, which helps counter its overall familiarity.
Like nearly all high school films, it makes a point to suggest how dramatic teenagers are, how much of a front their personalities can be -- as much as Molly misjudged her trio of detractors in the bathroom, and they, her; Amy guesses wrong about her crush's sexuality; the one fantastically rich boy, Jared (Skylar Gisondo), whom no one can stand turns out to be pretty sweet; hell, even the school principal (Jason Sudeikis) has a secret life as an Uber driver -- in order to protect their abundant vulnerabilities. Such has been ordained since time immemorial (or at least since 1985; take a bow, The Breakfast Club), but the film's healthy inclusionary politics add a particularly modernist bent to the well-worn genre.
It also strikes a blow for pro-gay progressivism: Even if Amy's best laid plans go awry, the film's casual observance of her sexuality is refreshingly free of exclamation points. There's nothing any more noteworthy between her crush and Molly's, just that the friends come to realize how misplaced their affections might have been in the first place.
Wilde also takes impressively risk-taking stylistic chances, albeit with a mixed hit-rate: A scene where Amy swims underwater at the party, as writhing bodies gyrate in slow motion under an elegiac blue filter, captures a kind of ornate serenity, a shared secret moment between the character and the audience; but an animated sequence, after the girls are secretly dosed with ayahuasca and fantasize about being actual Barbie dolls, feels a lot more forced.
Naturally, in the course of the evening, the two friends run afoul of each other, ending up in a brutal confrontation in the middle of the party, but Wilde cannily turns the volume down during the fight (captured also by a plethora of cellphones) so by the time the argument reaches its apex, we are left to read the lips of the enraged Molly, as she punctuates the altercation with a notable epithet.
In this way, the film rarely overplays its hand. As upset as they might be with each other in the moment, by the next day they've already moved past it. It's equally commendable that the film doesn't shy away from the sadness of the girls' eventual parting -- Amy is leaving for a stint in Africa for the summer before heading to Columbia, as Molly is preparing for Yale -- which gives it more emotional heft.
For all of high school's pitfalls and viper trails, it remains a place where you get a chance to truly change your mind -- both about who you are, and what you may think of your classmates. Pointedly, with a film that challenges the standard conventions of teen character types, it turns out no one is hateful. The only villain is the passage of time, itself, which brings Molly and Amy, along with their class, to the end of the line before anyone is actually ready. As another famous cinematic teen once sagely observed, "life moves pretty fast."
MovieStyle on 05/24/2019
Print Headline: Revenge of the brains