If you read the recent Man Repeller article about reaching orgasm with the help of an electric toothbrush, and thought, Finally, the discourse for me, I’ve got good news: The latest teen movie to hit theaters will make you feel very seen. Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, is funny, smart, and very much features “alternative” vibrators.
Standing on the shoulders of teen classics Can’t Hardly Wait and Superbad, Booksmart follows two friends on the verge of graduation as they confront the realization that time is not only running out but may also have been wasted. It’s a confectionary delight that plays to the strengths of leads and IRL roommates Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, and mixes final-night-of-our-youth anxieties with frank and hilarious discussions of female masturbation, porn and horniness.
The premise is simple: When best friends Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) realize that they spent all of high school studying while everyone else was studying and partying, they decide to make up for lost time and spend their final night of high school seeking out the hottest party in town. Over the course of the evening, in classic teens-run-amok fashion, mishaps occur, their bond is tested, and new friendships are forged. All to one truly delightful soundtrack (imagine your Spotify New Releases knocked it out of the park) — a necessity for any good high school movie.
Booksmart neither upends nor revolutionizes the teen movie genre; instead, it leans into it wholeheartedly with a few key 2019 updates. The radical or subversive elements lie largely in what is not said. Amy’s queerness, for instance, is not an obstacle or a challenge; she’s neither persecuted nor ostracized for it, she’s just struggling to kiss her crush. There are other queer-specific nuances, too, like the awkward work of trying to suss out a crush’s dating preferences and a discussion of the crush’s gender performance versus sexuality. And later, when Molly overhears the “cool kids” discussing her undesirability, it is her abrasive personality that is the target of their scorn rather than her looks (not novel in say, life or politics, but for a teen movie, kind of).
On the other end of the spectrum, playing up one of the notable tropes of the high-school genre, the other characters are introduced as contemporary versions of the hot girl, the bad boy, the dumb skaters (as if), and the Beiber-esque fuck boy. It can be difficult as a viewer, while watching a comedy built around the tropes and archetypes of a genre, to suss out when something has moved too far afield into stereotype. While female queerness is treated with some nuance, the prominent queer theater boys aren’t given the same treatment, at times dipping into flamboyance to underline the idea that theater kids are insufferable (if the constant insertion of myself into this narrative hasn’t made it abundantly clear, I was a high school theater nerd). They are painted in such broad strokes it was at times uncomfortable.
All that aside, Beanie Feldman (beloved little sister of Jonah Hill, for the unaware) has great comic timing, with rapid-paced delivery straight from the Amy Sherman-Palladino school of dialogue. She has expressive eyes that she puts to use, and she moves seamlessly from her shy second-banana character in Lady Bird to the more domineering alpha-friend in Booksmart. Kaitlyn Dever is delightfully charming as the awkward and crunchy Amy, and the chemistry between the two grounds the movie in a touching representation of the kind of female friendship that seems to exist in its own stratosphere. There are also a few cameos and supporting parts played by comedy royalty (including various SNL alumni, Mr. Olivia Wilde, and Jason Sudeikis), which is always fun to see.
As an older millennial, I watched this movie with a mix of awe and jealousy. I’m so far away from the time when I felt nostalgic about high school, let alone attended high school, that the emotional wallop of saying goodbye to a close friend or stepping into the unknown is a distant memory. But for folks still there or ricocheting through the upheaval of life in their early 20s, I imagine that witnessing these characters do the messy work of building themselves into the people they hope to be might tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately, Booksmart serves as a reminder that clinging to boundaries and preconceived notions of people might cause you to miss out on real connection, which, while not a particularly fresh idea, is one that every generation revisits in some form or another. (Perhaps Booksmart could be the Snapchat generation’s Breakfast Club.)
Booksmart is a clever, fun dive into youthful outrageousness that also serves as a tender reminder that, more often than not, people will surprise you. Did it make me want to flip through my high school yearbook, recalling fond memories? Good god no. But did I leave the theater pleasantly charmed? Absolutely.
Should I see this? If you like high school movies or want to feel nostalgic in some air conditioning, yes.
Most relatable line: “I’m a single woman in LA so I have a ton of shit in my car.” (Or something like that.)
Will I laugh? Yes.
Will I cry? Probably not.
Will I fall in love? If you’re not already in love with Jessica Williams I don’t know what to tell you.
Which scene was a personal attack on Nora A. Taylor? The theater kid doing an overly performative version of “You Oughta Know,” one of my top 10 favorite activities.
Feature photo via © Annapurna Pictures courtesy Everett Collection.