High school, it is a challenging time. When someone decided it was an advisable idea to lock hundreds of youngsters together in what can only be described as a swirling sea of hormones, they must have been (to quote Elle Woods) “Seriously disturbed”. Popularity, love, straight A’s… everyone yearns for at least one of these during these four tumultuous years, and the period often marks some of a person’s highest highs and the lowest lows. In her debut film, Booksmart, director Olivia Wilde looks at the completion of the high school experience through the eyes of two “smart” girls, all at once showing a different side to an often explored genre. There are changes coming to the teen movie scene, and it is a welcomed sight.
Booksmart follows Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) two high school seniors facing their last night before graduation. In this famous period of transition, the studious girls resolve to do something they neglected their entire academic career… party. They resolve to live it up. Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo and Jessica Williams co-star. Olivia Wilde directs from a script by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman.
In their script, the writers create one of the most joyful and ultimately optimistic teen films in recent memory. As the narrative action plays out, the story dives into not only the two leads, but a host of other characters from a wide variety of cliques. While this isn’t uncommon among these movies, instead of presenting thinly developed stereotypes as many are prone to do, this one examines a select few which the audience can truly feel for. Even “Triple A” (Molly Gordon) the supposed “school bicycle” is depicted through a sympathetic lens. This is the case from the quirky Jared (Gisondo) to Theo (Eduardo Franco). These kids each receive their moment to shine as the story plays out. There’s is such a sense of humanity in the script, allowing the movie to brim with a sense of optimism.
Watching from a personal perspective (as a nerdy kid who couldn’t stand her teen years), this optimism actually served as a brief struggle for this movie. Is this truly how it was? There is no way is high school this accepting! However, maybe this is a good thing. What if Hollywood starts breaking down these cliquish barriers? The experience of “Generation Z” is so different than anything seen by previous generations, maybe this growing awareness of others and an acceptance of their experiences isn’t so far ahead of us.
In her crafting of Booksmart, Olivia Wilde creates a dynamic between Molly and Amy which feels instantly relatable, while at the same time bringing the raunchy fun of a teen movie. In the past, the genre struggled openly with topics of gender and sexuality. Sometimes girls are mere charicatures… think the gaggle of cheerleaders in any high school film. Other times, they’re little more than the thinly developed love-interests. Very rarely is it the lady’s story being told. It is rarer still that these narratives tackle a female led story and let’s her not only feel sexual, but be funny and ultimately, be herself.
Molly and Amy tap into a largely unexplored place in popular culture, especially relating to women. It’s often the case in teen films that the female characters are static and perfectly content to stay in their place. It is usually the male characters who inject some change into them, be it Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.) in She’s All That, Patrick (Heath Ledger) in 10 Things I Hate About You or even Oz (Chris Klein) in American Pie.
Luckily, Booksmart takes a step away from this, especially as it deals with Molly’s character. Early in the film, she realizes just how much of the high school experience she truly missed. Why did they work so hard, if even the slackers are going to a good college? They could have been partying!?! While the other students define her as a “good girl” and all about her books, Molly and Amy aren’t that one dimensional. They think about sex. They masturbate. They watch porn. While Amy isn’t quite as ready to jump into the party scene, she follows Molly willingly. The girls are friends, and it is the sweetness of their relationship which defines this narrative. Teen movies historically have shown cute, cis-romantic pairings as the be-all-end-all in the world of teenage, and they don’t have to be. Sometimes all you need is a good friend.
Working together, Feldstein, Dever and Wilde bring saavy and rich character development to the screen. They take these girls to very real places, whether it is Amy’s fear at finally asking a girl out, or Molly’s outrage that even the slackers got into a good school. Both girls bring stunning performances. For anyone who might have been living under a rock after Lady Bird, Feldstein is a dynamic performer who is here to stay. This girl is going places! Meanwhile, Dever spent so much time paying her dues on Last Man Standing, it’s nice to see her finally with a meaty role. There’s much more coming from these girls, keep an eye out for what’s on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast is equally fun. Billie Lourd utterly slays as Gigi, in all her colorful, quirky glory. The actress has been taking the screen by storm since making a name for herself in Scream Queens, and she’s quickly showing just how crazily talented she is. Skyler Gisondo is equally adorable and heartbreaking as Jared, a boy that shows the pain of social awkwardness knows no financial boundaries. The young actor brings a sensitive and layered take to the complicated (and decidedly swoon-worthy) character.
As a teenager of the late 90’s and early 00’s, it’s fascinating to watch the evolution of movies as the younger ‘Millennials’ and ‘Generation Z’ kids move into positions of cultural prominence. Suddenly, audiences are seeing much deeper character representation. The stories these films are telling are stepping beyond the norm and demonstrating that people will go see features about underrepresented voices. In her debut outing Booksmart, Olivia Wilde crafts a not only tender, but entertaining story that’s a must see for fans of the genre. Be sure to add this one to your list.
Booksmart is in theaters around the country now.
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