Many of us find ourselves reflected in the teen movie genre. Whether it be John Hughes’ seminal The Breakfast Club, the 90s wave of the likes of Clueless, She’s All That, American Pie, and 10 Things I Hate About You, or even the new millennium fare of Superbad, Mean Girls, and Easy A, there are so many movies that people have come to identify with and see themselves in.
As for me, the closest I’d ever come to seeing myself in a teen comedy was Ally Sheedy (pre-makeover) in The Breakfast Club. That is, until Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and whilst I did see a lot of my own teen angst and attitude in the titular role, I identified much more with Julie, her slightly more awkward best friend. I noticed this young actor, Beanie Feldstein, in the role and, whilst impressed, wondered what it would be like if she had a full movie vehicle of her own. The movie gods heard me apparently and now we have Booksmart, directorial debut of Olivia Wilde and, I can say with confidence, teen movie of the year.
Best friends Molly and Amy have spent their highschool years working as hard as possible, settling for nothing less than academic perfection. When Molly realises that the peers that she had looked down on managed to get into good colleges despite also partying, the pair set out to make the most of their last night of highschool.
It would be very easy to compare Booksmart to Superbad on multiple levels. Both are about a pair of misfit best friends who go through a series of random adventures over the course of the night in pursuit of a lofty highschool-defining goal by any means possible. Where they majorly differ though is in the execution and attitude. Where Superbad was all-out crude at times, Booksmart has more, well, smarts than that, and a lot more heart to back it up.
The stars of both films, Beanie Feldstein and Jonah Hill respectively, are also brother and sister which makes for a nice parallel. However, it would be wrong to think that Feldstein’s casting was done merely for that reason, as she is so flawless as Molly that I cannot imagine any other young actor in the role. Molly is a character that you can find both likable and infuriating at the same time. She is sweet and cares about the things important to her, but she is also obnoxious in her attitude towards those she sees as intellectually below her, which is essentially everyone else in her school. Yet, Feldstein’s skill is that you can still find a lot to sympathise with in her. The knowledge of working for something for so long and it ultimately not being what you thought it was is genuinely upsetting.
As for the other half of this duo, Kaitlyn Dever’s Amy is a delight. When we talk about better LGBT+ representation in films, characters like Amy are what we mean. She is a lesbian, but her story doesn’t revolve around coming out or some kind of tragedy - her sexuality is just a part of her as much as any other aspect of her character. It’s more natural and less self-aggrandising than a certain recent superhero film which made a big deal out of doing the bare minimum. Her crush on a girl in their class is so sweetly done, and while Amy’s personality may be less forceful than Molly’s, she is no less endearingly dorky.
Together the pair are the ultimate woke teen BFFs, socially mindful and supporting each other throughout, although some personal issues do bubble to the surface, the resentment doesn’t keep them apart for long. They are backed up by a great supporting cast, including Skyler Gisondo, Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, and Jason Sudekis. The real treasure of the cast though is Billie Lourd as Gigi, the ultimate party girl, whose presence follows Molly and Amy through the night like a wild child fairy godmother. She is so funny, and steals every single scene that she is in so effortlessly, that I am now in desperate need of Lourd to be in every future comedy film, or at least a Gigi’s Summer Adventure spin-off.
The film is consistently funny throughout, only slowing down the laughs for some great emotional catharsis. Probably the closest the jokes veer into bad taste, so commonplace in many of the gross-out teen comedies of recent years, are some at the expense of intimate relations with a stuffed animal. Also, whilst Amy and Molly get into some wacky situations, the film never feels like we are laughing at the girls and who they are too much, lacking a mean streak that would have been very off-putting.
It’s more than being just a teen sex comedy. Booksmart is very much a movie about expectations and judgements, and those judgements being proven wrong on multiple sides. Amy and Molly are proven wrong in their stereotyping of others, and in turn their classmates also get to see the girls for who they are beyond the academic over-achievement. It’s a nice balance that feels well written and natural. For a first-time director Olivia Wilde really does a good job juggling the humour and heart. It’s not the slickest film out there, but as a starting point I can’t think of a better one and I cannot wait to see what Wilde will go on to do from here.
There is so much to enjoy in Booksmart, and it’s the kind of movie that will be even more rewarding on multiple viewings. Grab your best friend and make a night to remember out of it.
Booksmart opens in UK cinemas today.