If there’s one thing we never seem to run out of, it’s teen comedies. I grew up in the John Hughes era, so I was spoiled by mainstream movies that aimed at teenage angst, awkwardness, insecurities and hormones. But while the ‘80s may seem to have been the heyday for teen comedies, the genre has seen a real re-emergence in the last decade. Films like Superbad, Clueless, Mean Girls, Easy A, Election and Love, Simon all proved that, when done right, the teen comedy can be well done AND popular. And maybe that’s just the problem. Of all the movie genres, it just might be the one (other than superhero movies) that feels saturated. It’s almost gotten to the point where you feel as if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. It takes something really special to set one apart from all the others.
Last year, we saw Love, Simon break a mold by being the first gay high school rom-com. Superbad, from 2007, set itself apart by being shameless, raunchy and crude. And now comes Booksmart, a movie that mines a little bit of both Love, Simon and Superbad (not to mention Election and Mean Girls) but finds a way to cover all the same ground in a completely unique way.
Directed, produced, written by and starring women, Booksmart feels like so much more than just another teen comedy because it is. The writing is fresh, the performances are fearless and the direction is fierce and bold. Who would have ever seen this from actress Olivia Wilde, who makes her directorial debut. Wilde proves that, much like Greta Gerwig, who made her directorial debut with the brilliant Lady Bird in 2017, if you give women actors as many chances to write and direct as you do men, the new approaches, breadth of stories and fresh perspectives just may lead to some pretty amazing results.
is a comedy set in Los Angeles, on the last day of high school. Two seniors, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), are best friends who have been dedicated to two things their entire high school existence: their studies and each other. High school was always a means to an end for them, a speedbump on their way to college and the successful lives they have planned for themselves. They have every intention of moving on from high school with nary a second thought to those four years spent surrounded by weirdos and goof-offs. But when they realize that it might be worthwhile to experience just one high school party before they graduate, they decide to go all-in on the true high school experience, no holds barred.
We’ve seen this before, right? It’s the classic fish-out-of-water trope, the nerds vs. the popular kids, the clichéd out-of-control high school party where everyone is drunk and having sex. While all of that is here, there is something that feels so different about how Booksmart approaches it. Writers Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern (Trophy Wife), Sarah Haskins (Trophy Wife) and Katie Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic) all have experience writing funny women. And let me tell you, it’s a very different thing when a woman writes comedy for a woman versus when a man does it. Nothing against a great male screenwriter, but there is just a different element, a different vibe, almost a different language altogether. Look at some of the classic comedies written by women starring women: Bridesmaids, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mean Girls, Clueless—I could go on. Each of these is a classic because there is an understanding of its characters that makes them multi-dimensional. And that’s what sets Booksmart apart. There is nothing condescending, cliched or predictable about the main characters. Their motivations are layered and their reactions are authentic. Everything in this movie feels organic and believable.
And it’s freaking hilarious.
I can’t remember laughing out loud like this inside a movie theatre in a long time. The comedy comes at you in so many different ways: whip-sharp dialogue, bulls-eye characterizations and perfectly executed sight gags and physical comedy. I was reminded of a lot of movies watching Booksmart, notably Superbad and Juno, two movies that struck a unique tone and established a world within itself and characters that were so real and so funny.
It wasn’t lost on me either that one of the main characters is openly gay (and ok with it). It’s not a small thing, trust me. I can count on one hand the number of teen comedies that feature a main character who is gay. And what’s best about it is that it’s just an aspect of who this character is, it’s not the single defining characteristic. There is no one single defining characteristic for any character here, and that’s what makes it so thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
The writers could’ve so easily filled in the edges of this movie with colorful, eccentric and stereotypical teen types: the jocks, the dweebs (does anyone even say that anymore?), the outcasts, the popular kids, the stoners—all the Breakfast Club food groups. And yes, they are all here, but not in the same way you have seen a million times. Each peripheral character is fleshed out, too, with—gasp—stories and personalities of their own. This movie truly is a triumph of screenwriting and deserves to be praised for its many levels of relatability, intelligence and inventiveness.
The entire cast also deserves praise for performances that are endearing and engaging. Feldstein and Dever are both excellent and mine every emotion for the nugget of truth. Booksmart is about a lot of things, but it is, at its core, about friendship, and Feldstein and Dever’s chemistry and likeability go a long way to bringing that home.
Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo are the highlights in a supporting cast that is thoroughly entertaining. Young actors such as Diana Silvers, Eduardo Franco, Noah Galvin, Austin Crute and Molly Gordon even manage to steal the spotlight from established comedy stars as Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow and the amazing (can we see her in more things, PLEASE) Jessica Williams.
It’s a rare movie that sticks with me after I leave the theatre, but a weird thing happened to me after I saw this movie last night. For some reason, I just couldn’t snap back to the real world. I was walking, I was driving, and yet I just felt like I was somewhere else, almost like I was an alien and everything I was seeing was foreign to me. I realized it was because I was still in the world of the movie and I didn’t want to leave. Booksmart may be just another silly teen comedy, but I guarantee that you will find something to relate to, be moved by or just plain laugh out loud at. And that’s the other thing I realized as I was driving home: I couldn’t stop smiling.