Booksmart is, in the most simplistic sense, a female-led version of Superbad, just updated to 2019 norms and written and directed by women. Two close friends try to cram in as much debauched partying as they can immediately before high school graduation. Madcap hijinks, awkward sexual encounters, and illicit drug use ensue. In the end, however, they – spoiler – realize it was all just a distraction papering over their looming anxieties over what comes next in life and whether they’ll survive as friends when separated by far more than just a bike ride across town. Sound familiar?
Add in the fact that Jonah Hill’s younger sister – Beanie Feldstein – is one of Booksmart’s stars and is even cast in the similar role as the louder, more assertive member of the duo and, yeah, the Superbad comparison seems all the more unavoidable. That might miss the point, though. It matters that there is now a female alternative to what had become an overly familiar male story.
You can tell a lot about our culture by the comedies Hollywood tries to peddle to our teenagers. The sexual and social norms reflected in those comedies indicates what the tastemakers think the next generation longs for and will respond to. However, since Hollywood is a primarily male-run industry this has historically boiled down to cyclical runs of sex comedies, with each generation getting their own batch of movies about a bunch of dudes trying to score with the hot girls.
For example, even with their differing levels of sophistication there’s still a fairly direct line between Porkys, American Pie, and Superbad: hormonal boys just really, really want to get laid, but in moments of fleeting wisdom they might pause long enough to realize how much more there actually is to the teenage experience.
But this is 2019. “The younger generation are operating in such a different way,” Booksmart actress-turned-director Olivia Wilde recently told Total Film. “They’re demanding higher standards-they are demanding to be set free from a binary way of thinking in terms of sexuality, gender, and politics. They are, in so many ways, so much more evolved than we are.”
It is on filmmakers to both honor the everlasting, universal truths about being a teenager as well as the rapidly changing playing field which faces modern teens. Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s wonderful reflection on what social media is doing to our teens, accomplishes this about as successfully as any recent movie. Ditto for Blockers, Kay Cannon’s “let’s lose our virginity on prom night!’ comedy updated for the age of sexual fluidity and ongoing generational rifts over sex-positivity. Augustine Frizzell’s Never Going Back delves into class commentary in looking at the plight of two high school dropouts.
Wilde’s Booksmart – in which Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as two academically-inclined teens who choose the night before graduation to finally party like an average high schooler – aims to join that club. It reflects the general confusion of being a teen today, both indulging in some of the tropes of the sex comedy genre while also pausing to comment. Feldstein and Dever, for example, can’t watch porn without first debating the ethics of doing so, and when their night of hijinks dovetails into a poorly thought-out hold-up attempt the pizza delivery guy whose car they’ve broken into points out the perils of jumping into strange dudes’ cars.
While this sometimes has the impact of dulling the film’s fun, it also seems an accurate version of exactly how these two people would approach the night.
“People are actively seeking out things that feel more authentic and intelligence-they don’t want to be defined in overly simplified ways, they want to have fun without being pandered to or patronized,” Wilde argued.
So, her Booksmart, operating from a script by Katie Silberman (Set It Up, Isn’t It Romantic?), is not a movie which plays into old Freaks & Geeks stereotypes about clueless jocks, airhead cheerleaders, and lonely D&D players. Feldstein, for example, crushes on a charismatic, square-jawed athlete who turns out to be a huge Harry Potter fan. The entire plot is kicked off when she realizes many of the fellow classmates she dismissed as idiots are just as smart as her, yet unlike her, they managed to both have fun in their teen years AND get into a name college.
(Or they simply have rich parents who cheated them into the school, but that’s not a joke the film ever makes since until the Lori Loughlin-headlined Varsity Blues scandal it’s not something we even knew was happening.)
Beyond that, Booksmart aims to comment on modern feminism, sexuality, profiling, and body positivity. Kaitlyn Dever’s character has been out of the closet for two years and finally wants to actually act on her impulses but has no real idea how to do it or even how to go about having sex should she get that far with the girl she likes. Feldstein is not consigned to playing the frumpy best friend, as she would have in generations past. It’s her controlling personality, not her weight, which characters react to or comment on, and along the way she picks up multiple love interests, my favorite being Santa Clarita Diet’s Skyler Gisondo as a goofy rich kid with deceptively deep ideas.
“My own high-school experience was really colored by those arbitrary barriers, and the assumptions people made about me, and the frustrations that I had with that,” Wilde admitted. “We waste a lot of time putting ourselves and others into categories and assuming a competitive lifestyle, even subconsciously. And as we get older, we suddenly realize that everyone is dealing with their own shit. Everyone is complex and actually much more nuanced than we first assumed.”
It’s a lesson we continually learn throughout life, and it’s certainly reflected in Booksmart to predictable, though effective results. This is helped immensely by Dever and Feldstein’s unmistakable chemistry, which Wilde fostered by encouraging the actresses to rent an apartment and live together for a period prior to filming the movie. “I believe chemistry cannot be faked,” she explained.
After two decades of work in film and television, Wilde would certainly know. However, she never steps in front of the camera in Booksmart, leaving any on-camera cameo work to her husband Jason Sudeikis, who gets a couple of laughs as the school principal with a truly sad side hustle as a detective novelist. The next step for Wilde might just be acting in a movie she directs, but with Booksmart being her feature-length directorial debut – following a series of music videos and one short film – she put all of her efforts into pulling the movie together from behind the camera.
“When I came across Booksmart, I knew it had potential to be elevated into a more current state, that it could personalize it to bring it closer to me and my own perspective…I knew that this was the one that I would love and make good.”
So, like Greta Gerwig on Lady Bird, she assembled a crew with a healthy number of female department heads. “I decided that I want to hire a crew that I really believed in, and I want to empower them – because I ask a lot of them. We only had 26 days [to shoot], and I told everyone beforehand, ‘We have a strict no-asshole policy. And we’re going to have a lot of fun. But what I ask of you is 100%.’ People really enjoyed being asked to rise to their potential.”
Booksmart, by extension, is a film which usually rises to and often exceeds its potential. One stop-go animated puppet sequence and a centerpiece Steadicam tracking shot go above and beyond what you’d expect from a movie like this, painting Wilde as someone with a real creative eye. However, there is a side story involving Jessica Williams as a teacher who crashes the big party which feels poorly thought out. It’s a small misstep in an otherwise enjoyable teen sex comedy.
“Quentin Tarantino has a famous line of: ‘Make the movie only you can make. I thought, ‘I’m going to make the movie that I really want to see, and that I really would have loved to have seen at a younger age,” Wilde revealed, explaining her philosophy behind making the movie. “I’ll make myself laugh, and that’s all I can do. I do think specificity in comedy ends up being universal.”
A lot of guys have made movies about their high school experiences. It’s been long overdue to flip the script.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
They called it: In 2016, MsMojo listed Superbad as #7 on its list of 10 films which deserve to be made with a female cast. Other picks: Top Gun (which Captain Marvel kind of covers), Men In Black (which MIB: International is doing halfway by adding Tessa Thompson in a co-headlining role with Hemsworth). Ones they did not see coming, however, include What Women Want (remade as What Men Want earlier this year) and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (remade as The Hustle, due out this month).
Booksmart opens wide in the U.S. on May 24th. I caught a special preview screening offered to AMC A-List members.