Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

BOOKSMART

Directed by Olivia Wilde, and boasting a script by four screenwriters who evidently contributed about 50 superb jokes apiece, the high-school comedy Booksmart is like Scorsese's After Hours without the menace; Superbad without the sexual obsession; Dazed & Confused without the hangover. It is, in other words, utterly delightful – a riotous, warmhearted, unexpectedly wise meditation on growing up that's also cheeky and confident enough to score laughs via condom water balloons and a stuffed panda employed as a sex toy. To date, there hasn't been a funnier or friendlier movie released in 2019. With the possible exception of Jordan Peele's Us, there hasn't been a better one, either.

Best pals since forever, high-school seniors Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent their last four years pursuing academic excellence at the expense of everything except their friendship. They're by no means outcasts; Molly and Amy don't get picked on any more or less than anyone else at their southern-California school. But the girls' single-minded determination to get into the Ivy League has hardly scored them legions of admirers, and in return, Molly and Amy have spent their high-school tenure looking down on all of the fun-loving slackers, goofballs, and weirdos who have clearly never been serious about their futures. On the last day of her senior year, Molly even goes so far as to confront three of the more unlikely candidates for success and brag about her own acceptance to Yale. One of them, however, reveals that she's going to Yale, too. Another is going to Stanford. The third, meanwhile, isn't going to college at all. He's going to Google, with his entry-level position netting him a six-figure income.

Molly is shocked (which Feldstein conveys, brilliantly, with a stricken expression of end-of-days horror), and returns to Amy to share her existential crisis: What was the point of all their dutiful work if these hard-partying losers were going to wind up with futures just as promising as theirs, if not more so? The determined Molly consequently recruits her wallflower-ish bestie for one night of high-school debauchery before the next day's graduation: a night in which they'll show their peers that they can party just as hard as anyone, and maybe even score in the process – Molly with the vacuous hottie (Mason Gooding) who served as veep to her school-government president, Amy with the eccentric skateboarder (Victoria Ruesga) who she hopes will be the first girl to kiss her.

That Amy is an out but not-yet-proud lesbian is important. But the girl's sexual leanings don't wholly define her character, just as Molly's passive-aggressive braggadocio doesn't wholly define hers. Booksmart is astute enough to recognize contradictory impulses as natural impulses. Even better, Wilde's film recognizes this for every character regardless of allotted screen time. The script by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman plays out with simple beauty: a high-school-life introduction followed by a visit to one party, then another, and then another. Those first scenes acclimate us to the world of Molly's and Amy's seemingly stereotypical classmates and authority figures: the poor little rich boy (Skyler Gisondo) desperate to buy his peers' love; the freewheeling, alcoholic one-percenter (Billie Lourd); the self-appointed drama queens (Austin Crute and Noah Galvin) determined to stage all of Shakespeare's comedies as tragedies in front of the local Whole Foods; the principal (Jason Sudeikis) desperate for the end-of-year bell to ring; the universally agreed-upon Cool Teacher (Jessica Williams) whose youthful indiscretions have made her forever unable to enter a Jamba Juice – any Jamba Juice. We meet these and roughly a half-dozen others – including Amy's supportive, somewhat baffled conservative-Christian parents played by Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte – right off the bat, and promptly assume, like Molly and Amy do, that we know everything there is to know about them. We, and they, don't.

Billie Lourd and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart

Molly and Amy, not having the sense to secure the location of the big party in advance, first wind up on a yacht, and then in an interactive dinner-and-a-murder party, and then at the public library before ever making their way to the pre-graduation bash. And at their every stop, they encounter familiar faces from their hoping-to-be-forgotten tenure at public school. The joke, though, is on them, because precisely zero of these people turn out to be who Molly and Amy always presumed they were. That also winds up a priceless joke for us, because it turns Booksmart into a true ensemble comedy of the kind that movies almost never give us anymore – one in which everyone from the presumed school slut (Molly Gordon) to the suspicious pizza-delivery driver (Michael Patrick O'Brien) is allowed to be a three-dimensional character whose motivations prove far beyond Molly's and Amy's imaginings.

All of the aforementioned actors, and quite a few unmentioned ones, are phenomenal in Booksmart, and while the beguilingly naturalistic and wicked-sharp Dever was a revelation to me, I won't pretend that my chief takeaway from Wilde's film wasn't unending gratitude that Feldstein – so astoundingly good as Saoirse Ronan's best friend in Lady Bird – actually landed a leading role that we fans knew she could knock out of the park. But Wilde, in her feature-length directorial debut, isn't just pointing her camera at stellar actors and yelling “Action!” Wilde's intelligence and subtle subversiveness as a comic actor, usually on display in projects that don't deserve her talents, is evident all throughout her movie, a theoretically formulaic teen comedy goosed by extended sequences of delirious banter (Molly and Amy compliment each other's wardrobes past the breaking point), horror-flick shock cuts (Lourd's every appearance is both a fright and a treat), and even a sequence of stop-motion animation. Yet almost as surely as you felt Greta Gerwig's presence in Lady Bird, you feel Wilde's in Booksmart, and that's without the benefit of her having a credited hand in the script. (With eight hands already involved, there perhaps wasn't room for two more.)

You can all but physically feel Wilde's tenderness and humanity in her film's bevy of lovely fringe touches: the otherworldliness, and eventual heartbreak, of Amy's underwater reverie; the flush of exhilaration as the object of Amy's affection grazes her knee; the unanticipated pride in Molly's eyes as she realizes she's actually quite good at beer pong. Yet Wilde's love for her film, and her characters, is most expressly evident in Molly's and Amy's lifelong bond, which is tested, as we knew it would be, in an embarrassing argument during the Party to End All Parties. Wilde, though, doesn't allow this moment to be the mere, expected narrative pitfall it could have been. She films Molly's and Amy's biting, hurtful accusals in a single take, subtly shifting the point-of-view between our heroines, and eventually drowns out the sound completely; those around the pair may be (cruelly or just absent-mindedly) recording the incident on their phones, but Wilde, at least, respects Molly's and Amy's privacy. It's the movie's most beautiful scene, and one almost topped by the graduation ceremony itself, with Wilde's camera lingering on the faces of her movie's many confused, ridiculous, thrillingly singular young people, simultaneously letting us linger on the visages of people who, over 100 minutes, we've come to love, as well. Booksmart may not be enough to make you want to return to high school. But it's absolutely enough to make you want to return, time and time again, to Booksmart.

Jackson A. Dunn in Brightburn

BRIGHTBURN

A really juicy premise can sustain a movie, and your interest in it, for a really long time, and the central conceit of director David Yarovesky's Brightburn is so strong that despite its numerous flaws and somber comic-book-balloon dialogue, I happily stuck with this unusual, unusually gruesome genre mash-up all the way through. Written by screenwriting brothers Brian and Mark Gunn, the film opens with a spacecraft crash-landing behind a quiet Kansas farmstead belonging to a married couple (Elizabeth Banks' Tori and David Denman's Kyle) eager for a child. They find one, sort of, in that downed ship, and adopt the human-looking alien within as a son they christen Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn). At around age 12, though, Brandon begins acting strangely – which you could easily attribute to puberty if it weren't for the kid's scary sleepwalking episodes, glowing red eyes, ability to speak in tongues, and newfound power to toss a lawnmower 500 yards. Before long, he's an angry pre-teen in extremis, and as Brandon becomes more and more unstable and his confounded parents grow more and more concerned, the ingeniousness of the movie's heavily hinted-at “What if?” scenario becomes piercingly clear: What if a young Clark Kent used his Superman powers for evil instead of good?

A significant part of me wishes the film spent more time truly exploring this question. As it stands, I'm generally grateful for a 90-minute movie. But in the case of Brightburn (its title coming from the name of the Breyers' town), I would've gladly added 20 minutes if it meant further examination of how Brandon's evil leanings coincided with the onset of adolescence, or more trenchant understanding of how the kid's parents – Tori with her undying love and support, Kyle with his bearded-hunter bravado – may have unwittingly encouraged their son's turn toward the dark side. Yarovesky's movie, within its comic-book-y parameters, could've been an ultimate tale of nature versus nurture. Yet I'm content to take the film for what it is: a clever, exceedingly nasty revenge thriller in which the vengeance being exacted by our protagonist is for the crime of not being like him. Despite the Gunns' weak dialogue, there are no bum performances, with Banks and Denman exceptional in their limited roles and Dunn sensationally creepy as a child in whom you can't detect even a smidgeon of empathy. (The always-entertaining Matt Jones of Breaking Bad, Mom, and The Office also shows up, and plays the one figure allowed a funny bone before his inevitable, horrifically grisly demise.) And while much of the movie's final third lapses into abject silliness – with Banks' formerly astute Tori forced into one sadly out-of-character response after another – I never tired of our antihero's frightening, feral attacks, with his annihilation of an understandably pissed waitress and a kindly sheriff particularly unpleasant yet fiendishly enjoyable. For those of us exhausted by Hollywood's seemingly endless spate of superhero flicks, Brightburn arrives as a momentary, much-needed salve – a pointed reminder that with great power sometimes comes great irresponsibility.

Mena Massoud and Will Smith in Aladdin

ALADDIN

What is there to say about Aladdin, director Guy Ritchie's live-action (and loads-of-CGI) remake of Disney's Oscar-winning smash? Is it better than the original? Of course not. Or maybe it is – I'm pretty sure I only saw the animated film once during its initial release. What I can say with certainty is that this “updated” version, which runs about 40 minutes longer than the 1992 Aladdin, isn't nearly as fast-paced and charming, and certainly isn't as funny, with Will Smith's admirable attempt at out-doing Robin Williams' genie remaining a mere attempt. (Smith also proves himself a lesser singer than Williams, which proved surprising, to say the least. Doesn't this guy have a bunch of Grammys?)

Native Egyptian Mena Massoud and the British Naomi Scott play Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, and they're perfectly adorable, even if I wish these actors of color weren't speaking and singing with such blandly Disney-white cadences and phrasing. (She's a gifted vocalist, but I winced both times Scott belted out Jasmine's new anthem “Speechless” – partly because this addition to the Aladdin repertoire felt like condescension in the guise of empowerment, and partly because we already have a Kelly Clarkson and don't need another.) Marwan Kenzari plays the villainous Jafar's menace and threat for all they're worth, but I'm not convinced that a “real” Jafar is any improvement on the hand-drawn original, whose bug-eyed lunacy wasn't actively disturbing; Menzari may as well be auditioning for the lead-terrorist role in an un-aired season of Homeland. The familiar songs – “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” “A Whole New World” – are accounted for, though none of them are presented with the hoped-for freshness, snappy editing, and magic, as it doesn't appear that Richie knows how to stage a musical number, or even has any particular interest in the genre. (Perversely, the only dance sequence that isn't edited to death or augmented by CGI takes place over the end credits, and Slumdog Millionaire this definitely ain't.) The cartoon sets and costumes are colorfully generic. The slapstick antics and blockbuster-ized action scenes are rote. The mildly anthropomorphized expressions of the CGI animal sidekicks only made me dread the forthcoming Lion King remake more than I already was.

Admittedly, some of the whooshing spectacle of Smith's Genie was good for a smile or two, and there are a couple of giggly supporting turns courtesy of Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine's right-hand gal and Billy Magnussen as a foppish suitor, the latter of whom delivers one of his peerless clueless-dolt turns that briefly suggests a Game Night set in the Middle East. But overall, Aladdin is a lumbering bore sure to delight, or at least divert, audiences who want nothing from it but the exact same thing they loved before – only longer, and more self-conscious, and not nearly as much fun. With The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins Returns, and Dumbo recently behind us, The Lion King, Mulan, and more on the horizon, and this easy hit already here, it may be a whole new world (of box-office dominion) for Disney, and for global audiences. But it's not particularly one in which I want to spend my time.

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