An often overlooked aspect of the high school movie sub-genre is its malleability; tales of adolescent antics and angst have the unique strength of almost never feeling irrelevant, shifting and changing to mirror the experiences of teens as it uniquely relates to the moment of the film’s conception.
As times change, the frustration of growing up doesn’t – it only grows more complicated. The fact that we’re always going to need teen comedies is both a blessing and a curse, as constantly tweaking their formula emboldens both fresh ideas and the trap of rehashing the same beats over and over again. In a post Superbad world, the case has often landed in the latter department. Film-makers have taken that film’s trademark raunchiness, ignored its smarter qualities, and turned it into a script foundation. High school movies now represent the college comedies of yesteryear: obsessed with shock humor and little else.
Here to break the mold is Booksmart, the directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, who miraculously balances the gutsy laughs of the modern high school comedy with an apt and honest look at the complexity of being a kid in a college admissions obsessed world. Like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird before it, this is a film locked into the anxieties of teens in a way few other films are. While Gerwig took the angle of juxtaposing the looming specter of college with the economic pressures that make that system seem out of reach, Wilde and her screenwriting team of Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman look at the crippling fear of missing out on life that plagues kids desperate to achieve.
This one’s for the nerds, the weirdos, and the anxious few who would rather hit the books than the streets. The premise of outsiders finally getting their freak on is exactly the one that’s dominated teen comedy culture for the past decade, but this is more than just the Superbad with girls that some have suggested. This is a film that somehow takes a formula and makes it feel fresher than ever, putting two amazing leads through the ringer and delivering an instant classic.
The film follows overachieving book-worms Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), soon-to-be high school graduates who are riding high on the promise of attending Ivy League colleges. Their joy over their success is squashed when they discover their hard-partying, less intense classmates all got into their dream schools as well. Incensed that they wasted their high school years without ever having fun, Molly pressures Amy into seizing their last chance to taste the party lifestyle the night before graduation. As you can guess, antics ensue.
What makes the film soar are the three women that define it: Wilde in the director’s chair and Dever and Feldstein in front of the camera. All three turn in remarkable work, with Wilde’s stunning sensibilities for a first-time director giving the story a fun, unique energy that plays to Dever and Feldstein’s strengths as performers. The pair was in prime position for leading roles, with Dever turning in remarkable performances in Short Term 12 and Justified, while Feldstein broke out in the aforementioned Lady Bird.
They run away with the opportunity, crafting hilarious and nuanced characters that feel genuine in a genre often plagued by stereotypes. Dever’s Amy is a deeply charming and layered follower whose queer identity is a shining moment for mainstream representation, while Feldstein’s Molly is a take-no-prisoners control freak with an undeniable heart of gold. Both make their characters feel lived in and real, standing out as some of the most lovable leads in teen comedy history. Great turns from Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, and Noah Gavin only add more fun to the already impressive collection of performances.
All the humor works because Wilde never forces any of it; every wild scene and hilarious moment feels like a natural progression from what came before. It’s also funny because it’s startlingly relevant. This is truly a film for the Millennial generation, its foundations lying deep in the new generation’s quest to make art actually reflective of the real world. The film’s queerness and sexual freedom don’t feel like cash-ins or punching bags. They serve as building blocks for a breezy sense of humor that’s true to the kids of today. It all adds up to a film that stands out as one of the funniest of the decade.
Wilde doesn’t just have an eye for character development. She’s got a killer sense of style to boot, never committing the amateur mistake of filling the film with too many visual flourishes and distracting you from the main event of letting Dever and Feldstein run wild. When she does show off her unique directorial voice, however, we’re gifted with moments we’ve seen time and time again in these kinds of movies given a new life. Working with cinematographer Jason McCormick to craft startling long takes and bursts of color that set the film apart from its counterparts, Wilde has firmly cemented herself as a director who thinks outside of the box, an actor more than worthy of making the transition to behind the camera.
Booksmart is the genuine, feminist comedy we so desperately need right now, a progressive bit of crowd-pleasing film-making that never sacrifices honesty for its humor. It’s a triumphant debut from Wilde and a seriously impressive endorsement for the talents of Dever and Feldstein, one that hopefully reminds the industry of the pros of letting women do the talking for once. Most importantly, this is a high school film that’s refreshingly kindhearted, reminding us that the messiness of our youth doesn’t have to give birth to cruelty. If this movie is any indication of where the dominant culture is heading, maybe the kids are gonna turn out alright.
Booksmart hits cinemas worldwide on Friday, May 24th