There are generation-defining teen comedies every decade. In the ’80s, teen comedy staples included Fast Times at Ridgemont High and John Hughes classics The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The ’90s teen classics included Dazed and Confused, Clueless and American Pie. The 2000s had Mean Girls and Superbad; however, I wouldn’t say this decade had one or two defining classics in their true form. Easy A may be the closest to that, but that came very early in 2010. One may consider The Edge of Seventeen and Lady Bird teen comedies, but they skew into more concrete dramatic territory to be considered straight-up teen comedies. Booksmart has the rollicking fun of teen comedies past, but with refreshingly updated archetypes, scenarios and perspectives.
We follow high achievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) on the final day before graduation. They are notoriously hard workers, and Molly—the school president—is proud that she’s solely prioritised work first and foremost in her high school life, which has helped get her into Yale. She’s shocked to discover that many of her fellow peers—who seem to be reckless and have partied up a storm all through high school—are also going to Ivy League colleges. Molly convinces Amy that they will attend the end of year bash and thus a night of crazy hijinks ensues.
If this premise sounds familiar, you’ve probably seen Superbad. That film revolves around two senior year students trying to get to a party and get with their respective crushes. It also takes place over one crazy night before the duo will leave each other at the end of the school year and go their separate ways. It also launched the career of Beanie Feldstein’s brother—Jonah Hill. However, Booksmart is a different beast, mainly due to its incredibly refreshing female perspective in front of and behind the camera.
Actress Olivia Wilde championed to direct this film after its script was passed on twice, and her passion is plain to see. The script had gone through past iterations by duo Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins in 2009 as well as Susanna Fogel in 2015. While all three are credited, it was writer Katie Silverman and Wilde herself who really brought this film home in a special way. At its core, this is a story about the platonic love between Molly and Amy. This film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does if the bond between these two characters wasn’t as incredibly strong as it is on screen.
I haven’t seen a duo embody best friends in a comedy like this in such a loving, wholesome and most importantly, authentic way. Molly is more uptight, with immense drive and ambition, whereas Amy has more of an introverted and shy personality. Yet, they complement each other so perfectly. I fully believe that these two people have been best friends for their whole life.
In a film as part of a genre with well-worn tropes, it was important that Olivia Wilde brought a fresh perspective as a director, which she certainly does. Considering this is her directorial debut, that makes this even more impressive. It follows teen movie tropes, but it’s the updated archetypes and the progressiveness of this story which makes the entire endeavour feel extremely fresh. What’s most important about Booksmart is that female teens in the LGBTQI community are really going to be seen in this movie, especially through the character of Amy. She is a queer character but it’s not a huge driving focus, her sexuality is not put on a pedestal and it’s not her sole defining characteristic as a person. She’s a hugely layered character.
Booksmart sets up characters with teen movie archetypes like the (supposedly) mean cool guy, the attractive recluse, the promiscuous girl, the rich try-hard kid, the dopey idiot and our leads being the highly-driven overachiever and the shy, yet charming dork. What’s so great is that these archetypes are really turned on their head. Every single one of these characters has good in them and everyone in the film is really just trying to get through life. The fact they occupy these archetypes is something of a coincidence because they’re really all equals. What the writers did ask was, “How can we make these characters more than what they’re expected to be?” It’s a refreshingly modern take on long-standing—and frankly outdated—archetypes.
One of the most important things this film delivers is fantastic humour. This is a sharply written comedy which uses said archetypes to drive great humour as well as the utter absurdity of the scenarios our lead characters find themselves in. Editing is so underappreciated in comedies considering comedic timing is influenced largely by editing choices, and this is one of the best-edited comedies I’ve seen in a long time. When it feels like there’s improv, it never feels stale or repetitious and the comedic dialogue is note-perfect and delivered similarly well.
Olivia Wilde goes above and beyond what I ever expected from her as a filmmaker. She isn’t afraid to bring real emotional intimacy throughout, and it’s very important to let those moments linger amongst the sheer craziness of the scenarios our characters are placed in for a large amount of time. Wilde ultimately approaches the material with a real sense of heart, sincerity and emotionality but doesn’t skimp on the expected wild(e)ness of teen raucousness. Comedies can often be criticised for being technically lacking, but Wilde doesn’t take the simple route of comedic direction. By having the Steadicam operator from Birdman, she knew she could approach scenes in winding extended takes. Nowhere is that more impressive in a scene which begins in a pool and ends in a moment where pent up anger is released. She doesn’t cut once, and we’re able to see the gut-wrenching reactions to each home truth and placed in this immersive experience. The more fantastical moments including an incredible stop-motion animation scene and dance-focused dream sequence are executed with creativity and confidence, never feeling like storytelling gimmicks.
I can’t talk enough about how incredible Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever are in this film. They truly have some of the best chemistry I’ve seen in a comedy…ever. Beanie Feldstein is a true comedic superstar and deserves to be on everyone’s radar. Usually, comedies have one ‘scene-stealer’ but in a film filled with so many out-there, entertaining characters, there’s seriously about four. Billie Lourd is incredible as the ethereal and energy-fuelled Gigi and Skylar Gisondo as Jared—the rich kid who thinks he’s cool but is really not—is also a blast. Every member of the ensemble is in top form, but it’s Kaitlyn Dever that is a true revelation. Dever’s eternally awkward Amy is the glue that holds this ensemble full of hugely diverse and out-there personalities together. In the film’s best scene, she must transition from nervousness to elation to confusion to sadness to raw anger in a span of a few minutes and she nails every emotional beat perfectly. It’s a performance with incredible subtlety, lovability and empathy.
We live in a time with ever-increasing awareness surrounding the outdated nature of depictions of sexuality, but that doesn’t mean a film like this can’t address young lust, flirtation and seduction, because it certainly does so—with a heap of heart and charm. Apart from the obvious fact that Wilde and the writers fundamentally understand female teen friendships of today, it’s just an incredibly entertaining comedy. It’s also got a soundtrack for the ages. I hope people feel seen when watching this, especially young teenage women, because it’s a story of a wholesome female friendship at its core. No matter how wild it gets, it never sacrifices that relationship. Who said the teen comedy genre was dead? This may just be the defining one of this decade—at last.
Booksmart has advanced screenings across Perth on July 8 and opens in wide release on July 11