The Harvard College Film Festival hosted an advance screening of Olivia Wilde’s feature film directorial debut, “Booksmart” (2019), at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge on Thursday, April 11.
The hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age story follows Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), two best friends who’ve tackled their high school careers with a no-nonsense attitude. They’re at the top of their class, involved in plenty of clubs and constitute the very definition of driven. But on the night before their graduation, they discover that they’ve missed out on the parties and the social aspect of their past four years. In what is arguably the most important scene of “Booksmart,” Molly tells Amy they must have done something wrong. Now, they’re determined to get it right.
They spend most of the film traveling to different parties, desperate to make up for the fun they missed out on while hitting the books. Their journey is laugh-out-loud funny at some moments; any scene with Gigi (Billie Lourd) practically oozes comedy genius. Their journey is also deeply raw and all about their friendship and the bond they’ve built. There are scenes where that bond is tested, where it’s impossible not to feel invested in Amy and Molly’s lives.
“Booksmart” is a testament to Wilde’s directorial and storytelling abilities, Dever and Feldstein’s acting and chemistry and how relatable a coming-of-age film can feel when it’s authentic. After the screening, Wilde, Dever, Feldstein and Katie Silberman, one of the film’s screenwriters, were brought onstage for a short Q&A.
Wilde talked about her methods behind directing “Booksmart,” which included the benefits and struggles behind the film’s short 26-day shoot and working with Silberman on the script. Dever and Feldstein were practically indistinguishable from Amy and Molly; They looked like close friends, which became especially clear when they lived together in an apartment during pre-production.
Wilde said that her dream was to make “Booksmart” a “generational anthem.” It’s undeniable that she succeeded.
The following day, Allied Global Marketing hosted a roundtable interview with Wilde, Dever, Feldstein and Silberman at The Ritz Carlton near the Boston Common. The roundtable featured multiple journalists with questions about “Booksmart,” Wilde’s journey to directing and the process behind the film.
Much of Wilde’s preparation for “Booksmart” included rehearsing with actors on location and visiting locations and blocking out scenes in preparation for the 26-day shoot.
“I basically had the entire movie shot on the wall of the pre-production office,” Wilde said. “I had the entire movie with myself and our production designer, Katie Byron, playing Molly and Amy in every location, blocking out kind of, vaguely, what we thought it would be. Here’s the thing: I think you can prepare an enormous amount and still allow for surprises; you can allow for flexibility.”
Wilde also discussed this preparation’s impact on the cast.
“In terms of asking a lot of the cast, when you have such a short schedule, you don’t have time for the cast to be unprepared — ever,” she said. “I asked the cast to be completely off-book. That is an intense thing to ask actors who have so many lines, they’re basically speaking throughout the film.”
For Dever and Feldstein, this meant memorizing plenty of lines, including a fantastic scene where the two speak in Mandarin in the back of an Uber.
Silberman discussed the script’s ever-changing flexibility, pointing specifically to the changes made based on locations and on-set during filming.
“It evolved all the time because it’s a chemical equation of what’s going on when you’re there,” Silberman explained. “To be able to adapt before we got there based on the physical locations and then because everyone was so prepared, and because Olivia was so prepared, [we had the] freedom to try new things.”
The dialogue, which is fast, fresh and punchy, is made especially clear thanks to Dever and Feldstein’s incredible connection, something that was sparked by their time living together.
“By the time we were shooting the film, we were in each other’s laps, sharing food,” Feldstein said. “There was so much love there, and so much trust there, we just layered Molly and Amy there.”
The character of Molly herself didn’t come so naturally to Feldstein.
“As far as Molly, she didn’t come very easily to me. I felt very intimidated by her,” she said. “I had been used to being supporting characters who come in and are the joke, and then they leave. I was really intimidated to be on this two-person journey where the two of us are the story.”
Dever echoed Feldstein’s sentiments as she discussed being one of the leads of “Booksmart” — intimidating, but alongside Feldstein, easy.
“It was really nice to have Beanie’s hand to hold throughout the process,” Dever explained. “We both realized, ‘Oh, we’ve never led a film before,’ and that’s super scary, and it’s always amazing to have that best friend to go through something scary. You also can’t fake chemistry, I think, so it was very easy to love Beanie. It was all about doing normal, real-life things.”
Wilde herself saw that bond, not just between the two leading actresses, but beyond them.
“They did it with the rest of the cast, too,” Wilde said. “These two carrying the lion’s share of the material and working so tremendously hard — [they] didn’t have to be kind of generous with their energy and their spirit as they were with the rest of the cast. But it was like everyone was a team.”
For some of the cast of “Booksmart,” this was their first time acting. Wilde commented that she kept the set fresh and exciting for them by playing music, taking fun pictures and having them bond off-set on trips to get gas or buy food. The cast is varied, interesting and full of unique personalities that become increasingly lovable and relatable as the film goes on. Sure, “Booksmart” is a film about two best friends, but the community they recognize and the connections they make are just as important.
Wilde’s generational anthem is surely something to be impressed by. For an actress, director and activist of Wilde’s standards, her methods and creative process in making “Booksmart” are simply genius. It’s a film with heart, soul and authenticity. It’s could be the film of the summer, maybe of the year. It certainly deserves to be.
“Booksmart” will be released on May 24.